Property owners in northwest Douglas County have won a key legal ruling that could put a damper on large-scale industrial development in the area near the Lecompton interchange on the Kansas Turnpike.
The Kansas Court of Appeals on Friday issued a ruling that reverses previous actions by the Douglas County Commission and the Lawrence City Commission to annex 155 acres of well-situated land into the city and rezone it for industrial uses.
A Douglas County District Court judge previously had ruled in favor of the city and the county, but on Friday the Kansas Court of Appeals found that the county had not done enough to protect the interests of rural property owners in the matter.
The ruling found that the Douglas County Commission did not adequately consider whether the city’s annexation of the property, which is just north of the Lecompton interchange, would “hinder or prevent the proper growth and development of the area.”
“We do not substitute our judgment for the Board (of County Commissioners), but rather, with all due respect, the Board failed to perform its function under the law,” the court wrote in its opinion.
The ruling throws into question whether the area is destined to become the next location for industrial parks, distribution centers and other job producers that want easy access to Interstate 70, which also is the Kansas Turnpike in this area.
The city or the county could petition the Kansas Supreme Court to review the issue, although it is under no obligation to hear the case. Attorneys with both the city and the county said Monday they were still reviewing the ruling and no decision had been made on whether to appeal.
The ruling, though, does not prohibit industrial development from occurring in the area. Instead, it said Douglas County commissioners did not go through the right process in determining whether certain industrial uses would have harmed the area. County commissioners could choose to restart the process.
County commissioners took a vote in 2008 that cleared the way for the city to annex the property. None of the three commissioners remain on the County Commission. Commissioners Bob Johnson and Jere McElhaney voted for the annexation issue, while Commissioner Charles Jones opposed it.
Lawrence attorney Ronald Schneider, who represented the group of neighbors in the lawsuit, said his clients were pleased that the court found rural residents deserved more protection in the matter.
When the issue was being heard in 2008, developers of the property, a group led by Lawrence businessmen Duane and Steve Schwada, could not identify what type of industrial users eventually would locate on the property. Instead, the request was to approve a wide range of industrial uses, including some of the heaviest of industrial operations.
“Basically, as long as it was legal and it was industrial, it could be done on that property,” Schneider said. “That’s a pretty scary concept if you have property right next door to it.”
Economic development leaders have said sites near the Lecompton interchange are some of the more promising locations the county has to offer industrial users, especially distribution centers that want easy access to the highway.
Two other pieces of property may end up being impacted by Friday’s ruling. A smaller piece of land just east of the interchange already has been annexed and rezoned, but a lawsuit has been filed that makes many of the same arguments that were ruled upon in Friday’s decision. A second piece of property east of the interchange also is in the annexation process. It also is the subject of a similar lawsuit.
An industrial site west of the interchange, however, has not been caught up in the legal proceedings. Berry Plastics currently is building a new warehouse and printing facility on the property. That site has not faced the same legal hurdles because it was not annexed into the city limits.
The 155-acres north of the interchange currently is owned by Russell and Penny Tuckel, who bought the land in a court-ordered auction after their business partnership with the Schwadas was dissolved. Russell Tuckel said they are still very interested in developing the property for industrial uses, and they expect the city and county to take action to preserve its standing as being part of the city limits.
“There are going to be tons of trucks running by the site already because of the Berry Plastics development,” Tuckel said. “All this is kind of silly given that development. But as far as we are concerned, the property was annexed and rezoned when we bought it, and that’s what we expect it to have in the future.”