A more than 3-year-old battle over how much industrial development should occur in the farm fields of the Kaw River valley north of Lawrence is about to end, at least on paper.
Lawrence city commissioners at their meeting today are being asked to approve a new long-range plan that calls for very little new industrial development to happen near the Lawrence Municipal Airport or along the Interstate 70 corridor north of North Lawrence.
“Our deal is the safety and the welfare of the residents who live here,” said Ted Boyle, president of the North Lawrence Improvement Association, and a leader of a citizens group that has opposed the idea of more industrial development in the area. “We’re in a flood-prone area with no real drainage system. It is a no-brainer from our standpoint.”
Several area residents and environmentalists over the last three years have fought approval of the proposed Northeast Area Plan after voicing concerns about flooding and the loss of prime agricultural ground, which they say will become more important to Lawrence’s food security in the future.
Chamber of commerce and economic development leaders for the last three years have argued for the plan to include several hundred acres of farmland near Interstate 70 that could be set aside for future industrial uses.
The plan up for approval calls for essentially no new industrial development in the area, except for aviation-related businesses that would locate directly on the airport grounds.
Chamber leaders on Monday said they likely would not spend much effort trying to thwart the latest plan, which already has won approval from the Douglas County Commission. But they said they were hopeful the idea of industrial development along that portion of Interstate 70 could re-emerge another day.
“This is the only area in Douglas County that has the combination of air, rail and the interstate all in a hub,” said Hank Booth, executive vice president of the chamber. “That doesn’t go away just because you have passed a new plan.”
Booth said he hopes that future industrial proposals for the area would be viewed with an open mind at City Hall, if developers could show what improvements they would make to deal with drainage and flooding issues.
“Anybody who comes in with an idea to use this land will have to have runoff issues built into their plan very completely,” Booth said.
Neighbors counter that such drainage solutions likely will cost multiple millions of dollars to ensure North Lawrence flooding problems don’t worsen.
Greg Williams, the new president and CEO of the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce, said finding more sites to house industrial development along I-70 would be a priority of his office over the next year.
“The I-70 corridor won’t be the only area we promote, but I can tell you there is a tremendous amount of interest nationally in being along such an important east-west route,” Williams said.
The I-70 property near the airport has been one of two areas drawing interest for possible industrial uses. The other has been the area northwest of Lawrence near the Lecompton interchange.
But lawsuits filed by neighbors in the area have created uncertainty about whether that ground successfully can be annexed into the city limits. The Kansas Court of Appeals last October ruled Douglas County commissioners had not properly considered all the necessary factors before consenting to the island annexation of about 155 acres at the intersection.
The city of Lawrence has petitioned for the Kansas Supreme Court to hear the case, but — nearly a year later — the city still has not heard whether the court will hear the case.
“It is taking longer than normal, it seems, but we understand the court is very busy,” said City Attorney Toni Wheeler.
The unresolved Supreme Court issue has brought to a halt the process to annex two other pieces of property near the interchange, Wheeler said.
Questions around the interchange likely will remain for awhile. If the Kansas Supreme Court does accept the case, Wheeler said the legal issues likely would take many months to litigate.