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• For a long time now, I’ve been saying that the Farmers Turnpike area in northwest Douglas County has been far more about the turnpike than the farmers. Well, that balance appears to be shifting a bit. A group of residents (I really don’t know that many of them are farmers anymore) near the Lecompton interchange on the Kansas Turnpike has a won a key ruling from the Kansas Court of Appeals. The ruling throws into question whether that area is destined to become the county’s next location for industrial development. In a ruling released Friday, the court found that the Douglas County Commission did not properly consider whether the city of Lawrence’s annexation of 155 acres near the interchange would “hinder or prevent the proper growth and development of the area.” A Douglas County district judge previously had ruled that the County Commission did properly consider the issue.
But the group, represented by Lawrence attorney Ronald Schneider, contended that ruling was incorrect. A three-judge panel of the Kansas Court of Appeals agreed, and reversed the decision. What that means for the future of the 155 acres, which is just north of the interchange, isn’t entirely clear. But this much seems certain: Economic development leaders won’t be marketing the property to businesses anytime soon. County commissioners could choose to appeal this most recent ruling to the Kansas Supreme Court, or they could choose to deliberate again on the issue of whether the annexation would “hinder or prevent the proper growth and development of the area.”
If they do that, County Commissioners will want to have a much more thorough discussion of the topic. It appears from the ruling that the Kansas Court of Appeals was not at all impressed with how county commissioners in 2008 went about debating that issue. In the ruling, the court said the county erred by not having any substantive discussion about what the potential uses on the property might be. At the time, the property was owned by a group led by Lawrence businessmen Duane and Steve Schwada. The developer’s attorney told county commissioners that specific uses for the property hadn’t yet been determined. Instead, the development group basically wanted the ability to develop any industrial use allowed under the zoning designation. The court said the County Commission at that point should have had a discussion regarding whether any of those uses — some of which would have allowed the heaviest of industrial operations — would have hindered the proper development of the area. But the court noted several times that the commission did not have any such discussion. The court indicated that was particularly troubling given testimony from some rural water district officials that the water district was uncertain of whether it could meet the water needs of future industrial users.
“For the Board (of county commissioners) to approve the annexation by a mere conclusory finding without a more careful and deliberative consideration of the extent that any of the proposed uses might hinder proper development of the area under consideration is both unsupported by this record and inherently arbitrary and capricious,” the court wrote.
What happens next will be interesting. One, the property has changed hands since this lawsuit was filed. The Schwadas lost control of the property after a dispute with their partners in the project emerged. But I believe those new owners, Russell and Penny Tuckel, are still interested in seeing the property develop as a business park — although their timeline might be slower. But this ruling may have an impact on other properties in the area. The Schwadas have a smaller piece of property just east of the Lecompton interchange that was annexed using the same process, and there is another piece of property east of the interchange that is currently in the annexation process. Both pieces of property seek to have industrial development. This ruling didn’t directly impact either of those tracts, but just wait — the legal wheels haven’t stopped spinning in this area.
At stake for economic development leaders, who are charged with increasing the community’s tax base, is whether they will be able to use one of the city’s three turnpike interchanges as a selling point for future industrial development. Economic development leaders have long said the property near the interchange provides the type of easy access to the turnpike that businesses — particularly distribution centers — are looking for. They also contend that the area is woefully short of industrial property near the turnpike. The West Lawrence interchange already is largely developed with industrial uses, and industrial development near the interchange at North Lawrence will be hotly contested by neighbors who fear such development will increase flooding problems in the area. That had made the Lecompton interchange appear to be the path of least resistance. The Kansas Court of Appeals has changed that.
• Speaking of North Lawrence, city officials are finding out how difficult it is to get expanded sewer service to the Lawrence Municipal Airport. Folks traveling along U.S. Highway 24-40 in front of the airport may have noticed some digging in an open field by the airport. It may not look like much, but that digging has become a major headache, and now is becoming a concern for some neighbors. A Topeka-based contractor hired by the city is trying to install a sewage holding tank to provide greater sewage capacity for the airport property. But this being North Lawrence, digging a hole in the ground can be challenging because of how quickly you hit groundwater. My understanding is that the hole needs to be more than 25 feet deep. In North Lawrence, that’s called a deep swimming pool. Crews have not gotten that far down yet, but now have had to install seven temporary wells around the hole to try pump the hole dry. Those wells are causing concern among some neighbors that the pumping will start drawing groundwater that supplies their wells. Brian Pine told me that his family has serious concerns about the pumping, and believes the city did not thoroughly think this project through. City officials note that the pumping activities do have the proper permits from state water officials.
North Lawrence residents also are keeping an eye on the issue, now that they know what is going on. They are concerned about where all the water will go once it is pumped. Plans call for it to go down the Maple Grove tributary and into a North Lawrence pump station. But Ted Boyle, president of the North Lawrence Improvement Association, said that concerns him because that pump station already is near capacity during rain storms. At the moment, city engineers tell me that all the issues with this project aren’t costing the city extra dollars. The city contends that it provided the contractor with all the information it needed to know what to expect in terms of water at the site, and thus it must do the project for the bid amount. (I’m not sure what that is, but I’ll get it.) That sounds like an issue that could get debated in a court at some point.
The sewer project is designed only to provide service to the airport property, but all the difficulties may end up playing into a larger debate about industrial development surrounding the airport. Like the Farmers Turnpike area, economic development leaders have touted this area’s easy access to the turnpike. But neighbors have opposed it, in part, because they say the issue has serious stormwater issues. Whether fair or not, I expect this little episode will come up as an example of how difficult it would be to convert this area into an industrial park.
• City commissioners at their meeting on Tuesday are expected to formalize what they already have debated regarding making a payment to SRS to keep the agency’s Lawrence office open. On the consent agenda, the city will formally approve a written agreement with the state. It calls for:
- The city to provide $225,000 to the state. The city will be allowed to provide the funding in 10 payments of $22,500. It will begin making the payments in February 2012 and will conclude the payments in August 2013.
- The SRS secretary, in exchange for the payments from the city and also an equal amount from the county, agree to “not close the Lawrence office and to operate it at substantially the same level as current service through September 2013.”
- The city and county will be released from their payments early if “the Kansas Legislature acts in a way to alleviate the need for local funding to keep the Lawrence office open.”
- After September 2013, the SRS secretary agrees that “he prefers to keep the Lawrence office open and operating at substantially the same level as current service.” The agreement also states that “the secretary will make a good faith effort to obtain adequate appropriations for that purpose.”
As near as I can tell, the agreement doesn’t define the word “appropriations.” The common definition of the word probably makes it clear that appropriations come from the Kansas Legislature. If not, city and county commissioners can attest that the SRS secretary knows how to garner appropriations from local sources.