KU students disagree with administration wetlands decision

A map showing the route for the South Lawrence Trafficway. Courtesy: Kansas Department of Transportation.

As the Baker Wetlands’ date with construction machinery draws closer, Kansas University’s student government has voiced its discontent over the limited role it and students played in a university decision to let the Kansas Department of Transportation use part of KU-owned wetlands for the new South Lawrence Trafficway.

KU’s Student Senate recently issued a resolution stating its “disapproval of KU administration’s omission of students” in the decision to let the state use 8.87 acres in the Baker wetlands for a highway easement needed for the road. Student Body Vice President Emma Halling said the resolution was presented to student senators “as a critique of how administration handled the sale of land to KDOT.”

The land, which KU allowed KDOT to use in return for $36,000, is part of 20 acres of wetlands southwest of 31st Street and Haskell that KU has owned since the 1950s and has used at times as a student lab.

KU said that it did not exclude students from the decision-making process. University spokesperson Joseph Monaco said in a statement, “KU officials have consulted student leaders extensively this year and in prior years regarding the South Lawrence Trafficway,” including conversations between students and KU Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little as well as public affairs officials.

The episode represents another skirmish in the decades-long saga over the wetlands and the proposed Kansas Highway 10 extension, which would route K-10 traffic around the city to the south. In September a Columbia, Mo.-based construction company won the bid to build the highway. The project is scheduled to be finished by late 2016.

For the last four years Robbie Wood, a Haskell senior from Oklahoma and current head of the Wetlands Preservation Organization, has helped organize marches protesting wetlands development. Wood and members of the Senate’s Wetlands Task Force met with KU Vice Chancellor for Public Affairs Tim Caboni and KU Chancellor Gray-Little this spring to express concerns about wetlands development. Wood said KU could have used its ownership of the wetlands to make a statement on preserving them, but didn’t. “They could have said no, that they didn’t want it to happen.”

Along with in-person meetings with officials, university general counsel James Pottorff answered questions in email posed by KU student Brian Sultana. Pottorff wrote that accepting KDOT’s offer prevented KU from “engaging in extensive and potentially expensive litigation” should KDOT exercise its eminent domain powers. Agreeing to the easement deal also allowed KU to maintain underlying ownership of the land, Pottorff said in the email.