"Floods are 'acts of God.' But flood losses are largely acts of man."
- Gilbert F. White, geographer, 1942
These damning words (pardon the pun) are a timely reminder that we are sometimes victims of our own audacity. We build because we can, not because we should. Such is the case with the proposed Airport Business Park barreling its way down the economic development pipeline.
The specter of building an industrial park on floodprone land around the airport north of Lawrence has the look of a miniature New Orleans in the making. Back in 1942, Gilbert F. White, the "father of floodplain management," warned that building dams, levees and other flood protections actually INCREASE flood losses by making development on floodplain possible. Confident levees will be high enough, dams strong enough, pumps large enough, and Mother Nature tame enough, we cross our fingers and build. Just ask the folks in New Orleans how that turned out!
This "levee effect" phenomenon - building where we shouldn't - is not only fiscally imprudent but dangerous, bringing development pressure to an area better left alone. North Lawrence is already due $16 million worth of flood projects BEFORE any development to the north gets under way. The North Lawrence Drainage Study, a quarter-million-dollar professional engineering study commissioned by the city estimates it will cost another $25 million to keep North Lawrence's 3,000 residents safe and dry should full-scale development of the watershed north of North Lawrence proceed.
Cited as "key" to North Lawrence flood protection is raising Highway 24-40 to act as a new levee and pairing it with a new massive pumping station to force water where it doesn't want to go. The new levee and pump will be in addition to a system of levees and pumps already in place. A few years down the road, then, the fully developed Airport Business Park would complete the very picture Gilbert White warned us not to paint: building in a bathtub. But right now, right here in River City, we're just a City Commission vote away from taking the plunge.
Assured by city staff that flooding won't be a problem (based on 25-year-old FEMA floodplain maps; new ones will be done in spring 2008), without a cost-benefit analysis or industrial site comparison study (i.e. farmland vs. Farmland), with no idea what this project will cost the public or where we'll get the money, with no consideration of future phases, and with significant public opposition - but two enthusiastic thumbs-up from the Chamber of Commerce - our planning commissioners voted 5-2 to move the project forward. Three commissioners did not vote.
City and county funds are expected to pay for infrastructure to make the Airport Business Park possible. County Commissioner Charles Jones asked what he called "the threshold question" at a joint meeting of county and city commissioners: "What is the total cost to us?" Good question. No answer.
With phased public costs yet unknown, financial terms still a mystery, and the list of unanswered questions growing longer by the day, one might think the project would slow down. But the Airport Business Park seems to have a life of its own propelled by a Chamber of Commerce that supports the goal to quickly add 1,000 new acres to Lawrence's industrial inventory. (Interestingly, the Airport Business Park's plan does not even meet the Chamber's goal of large lots of 100+ acres. Most of the lots in this project are three to five acres. The largest is 20 acres.)
Why must we go this way? Are our city leaders in such an economic development panic that they push a project forward without benefit of reasonable information like new FEMA floodplain maps, a timely cost-benefit analysis, industrial site comparison studies, consideration of future phases, or even proper consideration of long-term public costs and financing? Are we not supposed to do our "comprehensive planning" comprehensively?
Everyone should be concerned about the Airport Business Park and the decision-making process that propels this private enterprise toward public money. And, in case you're tempted to mind your own business, this is not just a North Lawrence concern. Too easily labeled a "not in my backyard" issue, any private development requiring generous public funds causes it to land squarely in the backyard of every taxpaying citizen - yours included.
The threshold question remains. How much is this going to cost us, really?