Neighbors file protest petitions against Queens Road tax districts; city staff says that isn’t enough to stop the process

photo by: Mike Yoder

Queens Road is pictured on Nov. 29, 2018.

About 250 homeowners in the special taxing districts set to pay millions of dollars for improvements to Queens Road have signed onto protest petitions opposing the districts, but the city says the petitions are not enough to stop the process.

According to state law, 51 percent or more of property owners — whose properties also represent more than half of the geographic area of the taxing district — must sign a protest petition to prevent a taxing district from being established. A review by the city indicates the Queens Road petitions did not meet those requirements.

Ultimately, however, the Lawrence City Commission will have the final say on whether the petitions are sufficient. The commission will be deciding on that at its meeting Tuesday, where it will also hold a public hearing and consider finalizing the tax assessments for the districts.

Kay Brada, one of the organizers of the petitions, said the residents who signed did not necessarily expect to meet the thresholds that state statute specifies, in part due to the large commercial properties in the district that are in favor of the project. Brada said she thinks significant portions of the homeowners are opposed. In a letter to the city attached to the protest petitions, organizers noted that although many homeowners did not answer their doors, out of those who did, 251 people signed and only three declined.

“It indicates the fact that the residents in this area are not taking this sitting down,” Brada said. “They do not feel that this benefits them; they do not feel they should be taxed.”

The organizers did not note in the letter how many people they attempted to reach.

There are two protest petitions, one for each of the two special taxing districts involved in the $5.3 million Queens Road project. One of the districts funds the reconstruction of Queens Road itself, from Sixth Street to Eisenhower Drive; the other funds improvements to the intersection at Sixth Street and Queens Road, including the addition of a traffic signal. The district that would pay for the intersection includes more properties than the district for the reconstruction of Queens Road itself, but it only bears about $450,000 of the cost of the entire road and intersection project.

The commission previously agreed to pay about $640,000 toward the project, or about 12 percent of the total costs of the road and intersection. The benefit districts include several large commercial and multifamily developments, and those properties will pay for about 67 percent of the costs, according to a staff memo to the commission. The approximately 20 percent remaining will be paid by the single-family homes, amounting to thousands of dollars for most homeowners.

When the city reviewed the petition protesting the district for the Queens Road reconstruction itself, it found that about 150 of 400 properties in the Queens Road district, or 36 percent, are represented on the protest petition. Those 150 properties represent 21 percent of the area of the district, according to the review. The review of the petition against the intersection improvement district had lower percentages represented in both categories.

In many cases, the petitions included multiple signatures for one property when the properties had more than one owner. Chuck Soules, of the city’s Municipal Services and Operations Department, said in an email to the Journal-World that the city staff review did not count the number of people who signed the petitions. Instead, it counted the number of parcels of land that were represented.

The city’s bond counsel, Gina Riekhof, of the firm Gilmore & Bell, said that while the Lawrence City Commission has the final say on whether a petition is sufficient, she does not think the petitions that were submitted meet the requirements in state law.

“It’s the governing body’s decision, but we don’t have a protest petition that meets the 51 percent and more than half of the land area requirements,” Riekhof said.

Some homeowners within the districts, though, still wanted to make a statement by signing the petitions. Linda Weinmaster said the Queens Road districts will add about $4,500 to her tax bill. She said her property was also in a special taxing district for Stoneridge Drive, and that she thinks it’s not fair that she and her husband, who are retired, have to pay for another road that she says benefits the large commercial developments rather than the homeowners.

“I’m already paying for my road that I use, so why are you telling me I have to use another road and pay for it?” Weinmaster said. “It just seems very unfair and inequitable.”

Like some other residents near Queens Road, Weinmaster and Brada both said they took issue with the scope of the project, and that they’d rather see a simpler, smaller, less expensive road.

Throughout the yearslong debate about Queens Road and how its improvements should be funded, the city has noted that developers of the subdivisions near Queens Road signed agreements not to protest the special taxing districts, some dating back as many as 18 years. Those no-protest agreements run with the land, and would continue to apply to the current owners.

However, the provision of the state statute regarding protest petitions for special taxing districts does not specifically address no-protest agreements or state that they prevent property owners from signing a protest petition.

That means the city would have been in a legal gray area if the protest petitions had gained enough support, Riekhof said. If that had happened and the commission had argued that the no-protest agreements overrode the petitions, it could have invited a lawsuit, she said.

A previous memo to the commission also warned against invoking the no-protest agreements to override a protest petition.

If the commission approves the assessments on Tuesday, the city expects the Queens Road project to begin in 2019 and notices of the assessments to be mailed to property owners in mid- to late 2019. If the assessments aren’t paid in full at that time, they will appear on property tax bills in December 2020.

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