North Lawrence zoning: Effects on stormwater management get a hard look

The construction of a home on a 25-foot-wide property at 437 Elm St., at left, has raised the issue of stormwater runoff in North Lawrence. With little yard to absorb storm water, the neighbors at 439 Elm St., at right, say they have been adversely affected. The Lawrence City Commission approved a provision requiring developers to undergo a stormwater assessment of property before building.

Longtime president of the North Lawrence Improvement Association, Ted Boyle, describes Lawrence north of the Kansas River as a “bowl” — flat land lying between two levees.

Adding to the neighborhood’s housing density is like “throwing rocks in the pond,” he said. The stormwater, Boyle said, has nowhere to go. What’s more, extra houses adversely affect the “rural atmosphere,” something that’s coveted by Boyle and other deeply rooted North Lawrencians.

Boyle has brought up the issue at City Hall several times since the city changed land development codes in 2006 to create smaller lot sizes — meaning more houses — in parts of North Lawrence.

For at least one North Lawrence homeowner, the change in zoning has had real-life consequences: a home built on a small lot next to her rental property created flooding in her yard, resulting in a cracked foundation, she said.

Mayor Mike Amyx asked city staff in August to investigate Boyle’s concerns and come back with a plan. Scott McCullough, the city’s planning director, said one would come before the Lawrence City Commission in early 2016.

The construction of a home on a 25-foot-wide property at 437 Elm St., at left, has raised the issue of stormwater runoff in North Lawrence. With little yard to absorb storm water, the neighbors at 439 Elm St., at right, say they have been adversely affected. The Lawrence City Commission approved a provision requiring developers to undergo a stormwater assessment of property before building.

“Everything has to be pumped out of North Lawrence,” Boyle said. “So any higher density development in North Lawrence is a bad idea. In parts of Lawrence that do not have the stormwater problem that we have over here, that might be acceptable. Over here, it’s not.”

In 2005, the city paid for a drainage study of North Lawrence.

As a result of the study, commissioners in September approved the $5.9 million construction of a new stormwater pump station in North Lawrence. The existing pump station near Maple and Sixth streets was deemed too small for the area it serves, resulting in frequent local flooding in the area.

The pump is currently being constructed.

The study also investigated the effect of development in the floodplain, which completely encompasses North Lawrence.

It found that development in the watershed has replaced soil with nearly impermeable clay in some areas, increasing runoff during storms.

The study recommended not allowing development in the area that would reduce floodplain storage. The study states it may require the city purchasing small parcels of land solely to let water sit there.

“Historically, North Lawrence has been an agricultural community with low-density residential development,” the study reads. “… While parts of North Lawrence will likely remain agricultural, the projected future land use in other areas will add more and more impervious surfaces.”

Boyle has pointed to the stormwater problems as a reason to change North Lawrence’s zoning back to 7,000-square-foot lots.

The city’s land development code was changed in 2006 because older portions of the city had plots that were smaller and did not conform to the area in which they were zoned, according to a city memo from August. The city introduced a zoning designation that was smaller than the 7,000-square-foot single-family residential.

In North Lawrence, there were 142 plots with the smaller designation — a minimum lot area of 5,000 square feet — that already had homes built on them. There are four or five plots that could be developed.

The memo states there are 10 to 12 lots along Elm Street in North Lawrence that are smaller than the minimum 5,000 square feet but are still eligible to be developed.

At an Aug. 18 City Commission meeting, McCullough said the 14 to 17 additional homes would not have an adverse effect on stormwater management.

A newly built home at 437 Elm St. has served as an example during the back-and-forth between the city and the North Lawrence Improvement Association.

The lot the home sits on is one of those designated as being smaller than the 5,000-square-foot minimum but still eligible for development.

The long, tall structure is nestled between two other homes, one of which belongs to Dale and Donna Sanders.

Donna Sanders said the property just east of the new home has been in her family for about 70 years, and she rents it out.

Besides preferring the open space, Sanders said, the new home has caused other issues. After it was built, the water “didn’t have anywhere to go,” she said, and it drained into her yard and underneath the house, cracking its rock foundation.

“I think it’s too close to build a house to another property,” Sanders said. “It’s already done, but maybe somebody else could be saved from all of that.”

Kathy Perkins, the owner of the new rental home at 437 Elm St., said in an email that she supported the positions of the North Lawrence Improvement Association, including its stormwater management and zoning initiatives.

In the city memo from August, staff points to 437 Elm St. as an example of how a development in the new residential zoning could integrate with the existing environment.

“I think the product, what the zoning standards are producing in that area are going to be viewed differently by different people,” McCullough said. “I think part of our charge is to advise the commission on what those standards produce and then review whether or not there’s a land-use harm in them.”

After talking with Boyle and Matt Bond, the city’s stormwater engineer, McCullough said he may take to the City Commission a recommendation that land in North Lawrence that is the site of new development should undergo a stormwater assessment before a building permit is issued.

“Our idea is to, as development comes up and as building permits are reviewed, is to pay particular attention to the stormwater impact to make sure lots aren’t impacted negatively,” McCullough said.