News and notes from around town:
• Forget about soap operas. We’ve got a sand opera brewing in eastern Douglas County.
If you remember in August, we reported that Bill Penny of Penny’s Concrete filed plans to create a 351-acre sand pit operation near the Kansas River, just northeast of the intersection of Noria Road and North 1500 Road.
Well, it looks we’re about to get down to the nitty-gritty of sand pits in Douglas County. The Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission is scheduled to hear Penny’s plans at its meeting at 6:30 tonight. But now I’m hearing that plans for another large sand pit operation in the area either have been filed or soon will be filed.
In short, planners — and ultimately Douglas County commissioners — are going to have to figure out how much of the Kansas River valley ought to be dug up to capture the sand that is beneath the ground.
Penny’s plan calls for about 350 acres of farmland to be used over a 30-year period for pit mining. The area would be mined in phases, and much of the land would be restored to farmland after the mining operations cease. A good size pit also would be left on the property, and reshaped and contoured into a multi-acre lake.
The conditional use permit that Penny is seeking would allow the operation to mine up to 5,000 tons of sand per day, which would create about 200 trucks a day. But Penny is now clarifying that such levels of activity would be rare. Most days, the operation would produce about 40 trucks a day.
But there are now signs that a separate operation also wants to set up shop in the area. David Penny, who I believe is Bill Penny’s brother, has sent a letter to planners saying that he has a “nearly identical” application for a sand pit operation on land that is adjacent to the 350-acres proposed by Bill Penny.
David Penny is president of The Master’s Dredging Company, which has a permit for an in-river sand dredging operation that is near this area. Based on the letter, it looks like Penny’s Concrete has been leasing that in-river dredging operation from Master’s for about the last 17 years.
But David Penny, in the letter, indicates there is a “pending Corps of Engineers decision” to halt the in-river dredging operations near the site. The letter also indicates that another in-river dredging operation — which I believe is operated directly by Penny’s Concrete — is also subject to being halted by the Corps. Again, all of this is from just one letter, so take it for whatever you think it is worth.
I haven’t yet seen an application from David Penny for his proposed sand pit operation, so I can’t give you details about how that may impact the area.
But it looks like a battle is brewing on the issue. Like any good soap opera, the plot turns on a few questions:
— Will the mining operations lead to contamination of valuable groundwater supplies in the Kansas River valley between Lawrence and Eudora? A consultant hired by Bill Penny’s company emphatically says no. But in an interesting twist, one of the few neighbors who lives directly adjacent to this site is retired Kansas University geology professor Carl McElwee. He says once the deep pit is created — he believes the company may mine 70 feet down or more — it provides a gateway for contamination of the groundwater. So far, however, the county’s planning staff has sided with the conclusions in the professional study that indicate such groundwater risks are not likely, if the site is properly managed.
— Which is more valuable, soil or sand? The area in question is covered with prime agricultural soils. The pit mining operation will require those soils to be removed to get to the sand. But plans also call for the soil to be stockpiled and preserved so that it can be used to help reclaim the land. But McElwee argues the soil ought to be given more consideration than that.
“It seems very short-sighted to produce sand for short-term gain and lose the potential for significant food and fiber production indefinitely,” McElwee writes in a letter to planners.
But sand pit operators previously have argued that sand is a valuable natural resource too. After all, plaster of Paris buildings don’t have quite the same type of appeal as concrete buildings. If Lawrence really is poised to lose both of its in-river sand dredging operations, what type of impact will that have on the area’s ability to produce concrete for needed projects?
— Will the Kansas River change course? McElwee argues the creation of pits near the Kansas River will make the river much more likely to change course during a flood. The river already makes a sharp bend in the area, which creates a lot of pressure on the bank of the Kaw.
The county’s planning staff asked for an outside opinion from a U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist on the issue and was told that the Kansas River very well may change course regardless of whether pit mining occurs in the area. The river is trying to straighten itself out, and rivers usually win most battles they undertake.
— What will hold more sway: The recommendation of professional planners or a petition from neighbors? The Lawrence-Douglas County Planning staff is recommending approval of the sand pit operation. But neighbors have submitted a petition with about 20 names of area landowners who oppose the project.
Like sands through the hourglass (you knew that was coming), all those questions and others may be answered tonight at the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission meeting at 6:30 p.m. at City Hall. Or, the issue may get deferred and discussed another day. The Planning Commission definitely understands the sand-through-the-hourglass concept.
• Maybe a T-shirt with a big smiley face on it would make everyone in this area happier.
If so, an expanding North Lawrence business can accommodate. Happy Shirt Printing Company recently signed a deal to move into the former Riverfront Harley Davidson location — or for you older-timers, the former Roger’s IGA site — in North Lawrence.
The T-shirt business must be good because the company is moving from an approximately 2,700-square-foot space along North Third Street into the 10,000-square-foot building, which is at the corner of North Second and Lincoln streets.
Justin Shiney, a co-owner of the approximately 2-year-old business, said even in a slow economy there is demand for shirts with words and pictures on them. The company does everything from T-shirts for youth sports teams to larger accounts for corporations that want to give you a free shirt so you can become a walking billboard for them.
“I’ve never seen a real lull in the shirt business,” Shiney said.
The company currently has seven employees, but with the larger facility, Shiney said he is hopeful the company will be able to land larger contracts that will allow for additional hiring.
• Maybe the city of Lawrence should get a T-shirt printed up that says “Trail Blazer,” and give it to Margene Swarts, the city’s assistant director of Planning and Development Services.
Swarts recently was awarded the Affordable Housing Trail Blazer Award at the 2012 Kansas Housing Conference.
Swarts is not one of the city staff members who ends up getting a lot of headlines or public attention, but she is one of the region’s foremost experts on administering the federal funding the city receives through the Community Development Block Grant Program. Through the CDBG and an associated federal program, the city receives more than $1 million a year in federal funding for housing and neighborhood-related issues.
Swarts has been with the city since 1979, and has been a key player in finding funding for multiple projects related to Tenants to Homeowners, the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority, the Lawrence Community Shelter and others.
Lawrence’s Tenants to Homeowners organization nominated Swarts for the award.