News and notes from around town:
• It appears there is a shake-up underway in the Douglas County Building and Zoning Codes department.
County administrator Craig Weinaug confirmed to me that Keith Dabney, the longtime leader of that department was placed on administrative leave on Friday.
Weinaug said it was against county policy for him to comment on personnel matters, and he said he did not have a timeline for when the administrative matter would be resolved.
But I got indications that Dabney may very well not return to the position. Linda Finger, the former director of the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Department, is now serving as director of the department, and Weinaug said she was in the process of hiring someone who has building inspection expertise.
I don’t have any real insight into what has caused the shake-up, and I don’t feel comfortable speculating about it. The position basically serves as the chief building inspector for the county and also oversees what are often contentious issues related to whether businesses or home-based businesses are violating zoning provisions.
Dabney has been a county employee for more than 20 years, and had been the leader of the department since the mid-1990s.
I know that several members of the local building community are watching the situation with interest. The county operates under a 1997 version of the UBC building code, which is significantly different from the building code in place in Lawrence. There have been requests to update the county code to a version more similar to the city code, but such changes had not materialized in recent years.
• Speaking of matters that have not materialized, city commissioners still don’t have a date set yet to hear an appeal related to the Historic Resources Commission’s rejection of a proposed multi-story hotel/retail building at the southeast corner of Ninth and New Hampshire streets.
City Manager David Corliss said his staff is still waiting on several pieces of information that the developer has been asked to provide in order for a financial feasibility analysis of the project to be prepared. The city has hired a consulting firm to conduct the feasibility study, but Corliss said the study can’t be completed without some data from the developers. Corliss told commissioners he’s hopeful that data will arrive soon.
But Corliss did confirm that developers have dropped the appeal for one of their two proposals for the corner. If you remember, the development group — which is led by Lawrence businessmen Doug Compton and Mike Treanor — previously had proposed a building that topped out at six stories in some locations. That plan got rejected by the HRC, and it was appealed to the City Commission. But before the appeal was heard by the City Commission, the developers proposed a new plan that tops out at five stories in some locations. That plan also was rejected by the HRC.
In the meantime, the developers never had formally dropped their appeal for the six-story proposal. Well, Corliss said the development group now has dropped that appeal. When this issues comes back to the City Commission, it will be the shorter building that is up for debate.
All this is very curious. The latest, shorter proposal was created at the urging of at least two city commissioners — Mayor Bob Schumm and City Commissioner Mike Dever. That would seem to give the project a good foundation of City Commission support, so it is odd the developers haven’t sought a fast track for a hearing on the appeal.
The project does involve multiple requests for incentives, and this financial feasibility analysis likely will be an important document in determining whether those requests are granted.
Perhaps one other issue at play is that developers are taking great care to make sure they have their legal ducks in a row. I still think the biggest question with the project is what lawsuits may come forward if city commissioners approve the plan.
Several residents near the proposed site have hired Lawrence attorney Ron Schneider. Schneider has been successful in fighting City Hall. He was the attorney who successfully represented neighbors near the Lecompton interchange who were concerned about property in the area being zoned for heavy industrial use. He also represented neighbors near Lawrence High who were concerned the city and school district weren’t doing enough to make sure sports field expansions at LHS fit in with the neighborhood. And, I believe, he was fairly active in efforts to convince the city to not zone land near the Lawrence Municipal Airport for industrial purposes.
Everybody has to be wondering whether his East Lawrence clients will turn him loose to file a lawsuit related to the project, if city commissioners allow the hotel to move forward. I would suspect the financial feasibility analysis being prepared by the city consultant would be a key document in any future lawsuit.
• Well, Mr. Schneider is a busy man because he confirmed Tuesday night that about a dozen families who live near the site of a proposed recreation complex in northwest Lawrence have hired him to represent their interests in that matter.
As we reported, city commissioners approved an annexation of 146 acres at the northwest corner of Sixth and the South Lawrence Trafficway at their meeting on Tuesday. About 50 acres of that site has been proposed to house a new indoor and outdoor recreation complex.
Schneider said his clients — who have rural homes near the site — are not totally opposed to the idea of a major sports complex on the property. But he said the development will have to be done with much care, and will need to respect some planning principals that the city’s comprehensive plan calls for at that intersection.
Those plans currently are in the process of getting rewritten by city planners. The current nodal plan for the intersection calls for the property’s future use to be industrial in nature. So, the plan is being rewritten to state that a recreational center use and some surrounding commercial development to support the center would be appropriate.
But here’s where it may get tricky. According to documents shown at last night’s meeting, the current nodal plan calls for a large buffer area between any development on the northwest corner of Sixth and the SLT and the rural homes that are just north of the site.
I suspect the new plan is going to eliminate much of that buffer area. I say that because if the buffer area isn’t eliminated, it appears the 50 acres that are being offered for donation to the city won’t be very useful.
There wasn’t a good estimate given at Tuesday’s meeting, but it appeared that at least 15 acres of the site would be eaten up by the buffer zone. It certainly could be argued that a recreation center complex doesn’t need as large a buffer zone as an industrial development would. Whether neighbors will buy that argument without a fight, however, is another question.
On a related note, city officials on Tuesday were presented a rough “concept plan” for how the 50-acre recreation complex site could be situated.
I’m not making too much of the plans because they’re certain to change, but they showed a slightly less ambitious project than what previously has been mentioned by city officials.
This plan — which was developed by the property’s ownership group that is led by Duane and Steve Schwada — envisions an indoor recreation center of about 160,000 square feet. Previously, city officials had been presented with some concepts of an approximately 300,000-square-foot building. The latest concept plan does still include an outdoor track-and-field stadium and a separate soccer field. A good deal of the property also is covered with parking lots.
In case you missed it in Tuesday night’s article, the city will host a public meeting from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. on June 6 at the Free State High School Commons area to share some plans about the proposed complex and to hear feedback from the public.