Commission candidates draw distinctions among themselves in development forum

With two weeks to go before Election Day, Lawrence City Commission candidates sharpened their messages about growth and development at a Tuesday forum with about 140 homebuilders and real estate agents in attendance.

Incumbent Bob Schumm, who is scrambling to hold on to a seat on the commission after finishing sixth in the primary election, offered a full-throated defense of his support for the Rock Chalk Park project, which has been controversial because portions of it strayed from the city’s open bidding policy.

But Schumm told the crowd at the forum, hosted by the Lawrence Board of Realtors and the Lawrence Home Builders Association, that he thought the project had been a better deal for the city than it has been given credit for. Schumm has said he understands some residents are concerned about the process surrounding the project, but he noted the facility has been extremely popular with users and tournament organizers.

“I ran four years ago because nothing was happening,” Schumm said. “I don’t care if I ever see the light of day politically again, but I’m proud of what we have done.”

Much of Tuesday’s forum at Alvamar Country Club focused on what type of growth and development polices candidates would bring to the commission. Matthew Herbert got the largest outburst of applause from the crowd when he said projects that aren’t seeking public incentives but rather simply want city approval to invest private money in a project should be an easy “yes” for the commission.

Herbert has been critical of City Hall opposition of a proposed retail development that was slated for the area south of the South Lawrence Trafficway. He said the city had overstepped its bounds in other developments as well.

“You had people in City Hall who don’t own Home Depot stores telling people who run Home Depot stores how big their store needs to be and what it needs to look like to be successful in Lawrence,” Herbert said of the Home Depot development that occurred years ago at 31st and Iowa. “That’s ridiculous.”

Stan Rasmussen said he also was concerned that the proposed retail development south of the SLT and Iowa Street interchange faced so many obstacles at City Hall. He said the planning commission’s no vote on the project sent a “horrible message.” But he said good planning is important. He said the city needs to do more work to plan how the area around the South Lawrence Trafficway will develop.

Leslie Soden told the crowd she doesn’t want to see development occur in Lawrence like it has in Topeka. She said Topeka leaders killed their downtown area by allowing so much retail to be concentrated along Wanamaker Drive.

Soden said that even when developers aren’t asking for tax breaks, projects being built on the edge of the city often cause the city to have higher infrastructure costs.

“I’m not a ‘no-growther,'” Soden said. “I think the community will grow past K-10. But for the next two to four years, I think our focus should be on public safety spending, not on extending new infrastructure.”

Incumbent Terry Riordan said he wants to steer clear of limiting development when possible. For example, he said he doesn’t think it should be the commission’s role to tell developers whether the market can absorb more apartment complexes. He also said he doesn’t want to place many limits on retail development, which he said was one of the reasons he voted for the new Menard’s development, despite some opposition.

Stuart Boley said he wants to learn more about the city’s policies related to growth and development. But he said the community also needs to be mindful of residential development. He said he’s heard too many people express concerns about the cost of owning a home in Lawrence.

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