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News and notes from around town:
• After a few John McEnroe moments, there are signs that the debate over whether to light several public tennis courts near Lawrence High is winding down.
Leaders with the Lawrence public school district have filed plans at City Hall to revamp the existing tennis courts at Free State High School, add three more courts to the Free State complex, and add lights.
The plan comes after city commissioners several weeks ago balked at the most recent plan to add lights to the relatively new tennis courts that are near Lawrence High. Neighbors in the area have mounted vigorous opposition to those lights, citing concerns the lighting would spill onto their properties.
As we reported after that meeting, the city’s Parks and Recreation Department and the school district began having talks about whether a lighting solution was possible at Free State, which has courts that are much farther from residences.
I had heard from some in the tennis community — who insist they are just trying to get lighted courts replaced that were lost when Lawrence High expanded its athletic fields complex — that the Free State solution wasn’t a good one. They said the courts at Free State already were in bad condition. But my understanding is this project will include repairs to the five existing courts, in addition to building three new courts.
The Free State courts won’t be as convenient as the LHS courts were for some tennis players who live in the central part of the city, but the Parks and Recreation officials I talked to are optimistic the project can be a winner.
They note the site has some advantages, such as having an ample amount of parking. But the biggest is tennis players can be more confident that they have a long-term facility that won’t create conflict with neighbors. The tennis courts are in the interior of the Free State site. The three new courts would be built in a grassy area that currently is used as make-shift activity area.
If there is a sticking point left on this deal, it may be money. The plans filed with City Hall don’t list a price for the project. The school district will want the city to help pay for the project, since the courts will be open to the general public. I haven’t seen a proposed cost-sharing arrangement. The city, though, does have money budgeted for the LHS tennis lighting project that could be transferred to this location. I suspect the city may be willing to up its ante to get this long-simmering issue off its plate. Eventually, the issue will end up before city commissioners for approval.
• Speaking of parks and recreation, the department recently received word it has won a $20,000 grant for new playground equipment at John Taylor Park in North Lawrence. The grant came through the Playful City USA program. All the money must be spent directly on playground equipment, and the grant requires the city to spend some money over and above the grant amount. So, expect more than $20,000 worth of playground equipment at the park, which is along North Seventh Street between Walnut and Elm streets.
• From parks to business parks: City commissioners at Tuesday’s meeting kept plans moving forward to convert the former Farmland Industries plant into a business park.
Commissioners gave informal approval to a concept plan that shows how the business park would be arranged to accommodate businesses. Now, engineers can begin creating more detailed documents to plat and rezone the property.
But the more interesting update to the project came in the area of “green projects” that staff members have been considering for the 400-plus acre project.
All of the projects are still in the research stage, but it is clear the city is looking at both small-scale and large-scale possibilities. Here’s a look at some:
— There are some portions of the Farmland property that can never have buildings on it, such as some capped ponds that use to store nitrogen contaminated water. But solar panels could be built on the site. How many solar panels, however, is a key question. One idea is to put about $40,000 worth of solar panels on the site, which would produce enough electricity to offset the power used by various stormwater pumps and utility pumps used on the site.
But the city also notes the site could accommodate a major solar panel field — as in a field that could produce up to 1.7 MW of electricity. But such a field would not come cheap. Rough estimates put it at $7 million to $10.5 million to construct. That makes it unlikely the city is going to just decide to build a large solar field. But who knows? In conjunction with another project — say a solar panel manufacturer locating in the park — such a project might be possible.
— One unique attribute of the Farmland site is it has a bunch of nitrogen-contaminated groundwater that must be pumped and put to some sort of use. Currently, the water is piped to North Lawrence where it is used on farm fields. But another possibility is to use the water to grow algae that can be converted into fuel.
Dr. Belinda Sturm at Kansas University already is using about 2,500 gallons of water from the city’s sewer treatment plant to conduct algae growth experiments. If that research is promising, the Farmland plant could provide a whole lot of algae-growing possibilities. It stores about 16 million gallons of nitrogen-enriched water at any given time. (I should go into environmental remediation. It took me only one paragraph to convert it from nitrogen-contaminated to nitrogen-enriched water.)
— Researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratories are studying the Farmland site to assess its potential to house a biomass energy production plant. The study is part of a federal grant the city won last year to research green energy options at the Farmland site.
The general idea of the plant would be to use crop residue from area farm fields to power the plant, which would either produce electricity or biomass pellets. The folks at the renewable energy lab haven’t yet come up with cost estimates and a feasibility analysis. That work is expected to be completed by November. But city officials told me it is not likely the city would ever build a biomass plant. Rather, the study might be used to show private industry the feasibility of construction of such a plant at the site.
— The city also is researching smaller scale projects. A park-and-ride lot for commuters is being contemplated. The lot could have electric vehicle charging stations. A small-scale wind turbine also could be part of the Farmland site, likely placed near the entrance of the park to power a fountain or some other type of entrance display.