It is an age old story: a battle over a hill.
And like many hills that cause men to spar, this one is well situated. This hill is nearly 155 acres of pasture ground just north of the Lecompton interchange on the Kansas Turnpike.
For a local development group, the ground may be just what Lawrence needs right now - a place to aggressively market to distribution centers and light manufacturers that could bring new jobs to the community.
"It is 960 feet to the interstate. That's all the distance a truck would have to travel," said Steve Schwada - who along with his father, Duane Schwada, is a key member of the development group. "You can't find that type of direct access to the interstate anywhere else in Lawrence. It is tough to find in any city."
But to neighbors - primarily owners of large, rural, estate-like homes - the property is best described as land in waiting. Many know its long-term future isn't to grow grass and fatten cattle, but they say the fact it is still two miles outside the current city limits of Lawrence means it isn't suited for industrial development today.
"We're not obstructionists," said Dave Ross, who owns 50 acres just northeast of the site and is the president of the local neighborhood group. "But it sure seems like this is being rushed. We don't have the planning in place to make sure it becomes something we can be proud of."
City commissioners will plant themselves firmly in the debate at their weekly meeting Tuesday. Commissioners are being asked to annex the 154.9 acres on the northwest corner of North 1800 Road and East 900 Road into the city limits. The annexation is the first step that would allow the property to be redeveloped into a business park. Commissioners meet at 6:35 p.m. at City Hall, Sixth and Massachusetts streets.
Sense of urgency
Schwada said he's not trying to rush the project. It has been in the works for more than four years. In 2004, developers tried to get Douglas County commissioners to rezone the property to allow for a county business park. That effort was narrowly defeated after neighbors filed a valid protest petition opposing the project.
But Schwada said now is not the time for the community to delay the project. He said economic development leaders have said repeatedly that the community is lacking large industrial sites. Schwada's site would become the largest parcel of ground that local economic development leaders have to market to new businesses.
"There should be a sense of urgency," Schwada said. "The chamber tells us, and experiences in other communities have shown us that industrial users don't take a lot of time to deal with a community unless there are sites available that day. They don't wait around for a community to develop a site."
Ross isn't denying that this 155-acre piece of property is well-situated. But that's why he and many of his neighbors are arguing that local leaders ought to take their time in allowing the property to develop.
"This site is going to be visible to everybody who drives by on I-70, and for a lot of them this will be the main image they have of Lawrence," Ross said. "I drive by lots of communities on the interstate and see what has been built and think 'what an ugly community.' I don't want that to happen here."
Ross said he's concerned that there's been no area plan created by Lawrence-Douglas County planners to show how an industrial park could fit into the area. He's also concerned that there aren't more details available about the specific type of development the group is seeking.
"I feel like he's really asking for a blank check," Ross said.
Schwada said that is not so, but he concedes he can't provide specific types of businesses. He said the site would be marketed to industries that need easy access to major roadways. In addition to being adjacent to the interstate, the site also is right off the South Lawrence Trafficway - which if completed would provide a more direct route into southern Johnson County.
And Schwada said despite assertions by Ross and others, the development group is not interested in putting a truck stop on the site. He does, however, want to leave open the possibility of a convenience store - and yes, it might sell diesel fuel.
"But that is a lot different than a truck stop," Schwada said. "We're not going to attempt to put a truck stop out there."
Another use that isn't likely - at least not in the near future - is any industrial project that would require lots of water. The development group is not requesting the city to extend either city water or city sewer service to the site. And since the property is being voluntarily annexed, the city isn't required to do so.
Theoretically, the property could be served by a lagoon, septic system or other similar rural sewage system as long as the user didn't produce large amounts of waste. Distribution centers, for example, may only have restrooms and breakrooms that would require sewer service.
But water is shaping up to be a larger issue. Most industrial buildings in the city would require a fire sprinkler system. But Scott McCullough said there would be ways to accommodate fire sprinkler systems through small water tower-like devices or other storage systems.
The project, though, is facing opposition from the leader of the rural water district that serves the area. Donald Fuston, chairman of RWD No. 6, has told city planners that his district is not equipped to handle an industrial user. He has said the consequences could be dire.
"Water consumption in excess of 2 million gallons of water per year would require RWD No. 6 to ration water to 300 plus water customers and the industrial site," Fuston wrote in a letter to planners.
Schwada hasn't been specific in how the developers would address the water issue. He said such specifics would come once specific development plans are proposed for the property.
"We think there are users out there who can survive on what is available today," Schwada said.
The site has captured the attention of city leaders, who have repeatedly said that improving the city's economic development efforts is a top priority.
The Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission has voted to recommend approval of the annexation by a vote of 6-2. The city's planning staff, however, did not go that far. Planning staff members said the annexation request shouldn't be heard until a sector plan that reviews 4,000 acres of property around the site is completed. That likely would take until at least this summer.
But importantly, the site has fans on the top floor of City Hall. City Manager David Corliss said the location - just one of three interchange sites Lawrence has on the turnpike - offers strong economic development opportunities.
"Given the nature of how northeast Kansas is developing, having the ability to have jobs located next to that intersection makes a lot of sense," Corliss said.
Corliss also said he likes the fact that the developer isn't requesting any financial assistance from the city to make the site ready to be marketed as an industrial park. That's not the case with two other proposed industrial sites that the city is considering. One is a site near the Lawrence Municipal Airport that would require city money to extend water and sewer service to the site. The other site is the former Farmland Industries property that the city is interested in purchasing, but likely would have to spend millions to make ready for development.
"When you look at this site," Corliss said, "it is right next to one of the busiest roads in the Midwest, it has access to a good transportation network, and it does not have some of the concerns that we're seeing in other areas."