Lawrence city officials may be completely justified in requiring developers of a downtown hotel project to survey their site to determine whether it is an unmarked burial ground for several black soldiers killed in Quantrill’s Raid, but the issue should have been raised much earlier in the process.
While city commissioners already had moved ahead to a discussion of major traffic revisions at Ninth and New Hampshire streets, the city’s planning staff was sitting on a letter from the state archeologist that might make developers reconsider their decision to build a hotel project on the southeast corner of that intersection. If the city were going to require developers to incur the additional time and expense of test excavations to look for burial sites at that location, the developers had a right to know that before the project had progressed this far. This is the kind of interaction that has caused the city to be criticized as not friendly to business development. One of developers’ most frequent complaints about the city planning process is that the rules keep changing as a project moves forward.
The situation with the possible burial site seems to be largely a matter of poor communication. Several opponents of the hotel project raised the issue during discussions of the project, but neither city commissioners nor the city’s Historic Resources Commission apparently were made aware that the state archeologist had notified City Manager David Corliss back in March that the state wanted to discuss doing test excavations on the site before any development permits were approved. The project has been approved by both the Historic Resources Commission and city commissioners, who also approved a $12 million incentive package for the project in July.
Through all of this process, city planning staff members were saying nothing about the letter from the state archeologist because they had decided that the question didn’t need to be raised until months later when a building permit or site plan for the project was being considered. Now, city officials are saying they are likely to require the developers of the project to do test excavations at the site. It’s easy to understand why developers would be displeased by this prospect. The rules may not have changed during the approval process, but the developers weren’t made aware of this potential wrinkle in a timely manner. Even if planners didn’t mean this to be an impediment, the timing of the excavation requirement gives the impression they are changing the rules or, even worse, seeking to stymie the project.
Lawrence certainly should be conscious and protective of its important history, and examining this site for pre-Civil War remains may be a worthy endeavor, but the manner in which this was handled by the city leaves much to be desired.