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Kansas Supreme Court hands neighbors victory in legal dispute over industrial land near Lecompton interchange
Well, it is not exactly a Perry Mason moment, but a piece of legal drama surrounding one of the more promising pieces of industrial land in the Lawrence area has ended after nearly five years.
The Kansas Supreme Court recently has said it has no interest in hearing a case that questions whether the area around the Lecompton interchange on the Kansas Turnpike was properly annexed into the city of Lawrence for industrial use. That means an October 2011 ruling by the Kansas Court of Appeals that found the Douglas County Commission improperly allowed the annexation now stands.
That essentially sends Lawrence’s efforts to create a new industrial area near the Lecompton interchange back to square one.
The case involves a 155-acre tract immediately north of the Lecompton interchange. Economic development leaders have said the area has great potential to attract distribution centers and other industrial users that have a need to be just seconds away from Interstate 70, AKA the Kansas Turnpike.
At the time, in 2008, the property was owned by a group led by Lawrence developers Duane and Steve Schwada. The group went through the process to have the property annexed into the city and zoned for the city’s broadest industrial category.
But neighbors in the area expressed significant concern over the annexation and especially the rezoning. The industrial zoning would have allowed for some of the heavier types of industrial uses permitted in the county to develop at the site, and neighbors found that potentially worrisome.
Lawsuits were filed alleging that Douglas County commissioners did not go through the proper process in permitting Lawrence officials to annex the property. The neighbors lost that argument in Douglas County District Court, but in October 2011 the Kansas Court of Appeals sided with the neighbors. It reversed the district court decision and said the county commissioners had not adequately considered whether the city’s annexation of the property would “hinder or prevent the proper growth and development of the area.”
The county appealed the ruling to the Kansas Supreme Court, but it recently issued a notice saying it would not review the case. And with that simple statement, neighbors had won an important legal victory.
Now the issue turns to what will happen to the area in the future. Industrial development is still a possibility. The ruling from the appeals court does not prohibit industrial development in the area. It just says Douglas County commissioners must go through a more thorough process in reviewing any annexation requests for the area. Another possibility is that the county could allow industrial development without the property being annexed. The large Berry Plastics warehouse and distribution center was built just to the west of the interchange using county zoning rather than city of Lawrence zoning.
Ron Schneider, the Lawrence attorney who represents the neighbors, said his clients long have been open to discussing a deal that would allow some light industrial uses at the site, but that would prohibit many heavy industrial uses that neighbors would find objectionable.
“My clients just want a reasonable resolution,” Schneider said. “But their frustration levels are high because this has cost them a lot of time and money.”
I would guess frustration levels are high in a lot of camps regarding this issue. The lawsuit not only delayed any potential development on the 155-acre site, but it also has impacted rezoning requests for two other pieces of nearby property that were annexed into the city for potential industrial use. In talking with other attorneys, it now appears likely those two pieces of property — one owned by a Schwada group and the other owned by a group led by the Rothwell family — will also be sent back to square one.
What’s done is done, but it will be interesting to see whether city, county and economic development leaders have any regret about how this matter was handled. Perhaps it is a moot issue because many of the players involved in this decision are no longer in power. The Chamber of Commerce’s economic development team has changed, all three county commissioners have changed, and several of the faces at City Hall have changed. Even the ownership of the 155 acres has changed. Area residents Russell and Penny Tuckel bought the property at an odd sheriff's auction in 2010.
But what remains true is that Lawrence only has three interchanges on the important I-70 corridor. The West Lawrence interchange is largely fully developed with major job centers such as the KMart distribution center, the Del Monte pet food plant and Hallmark Cards. (It's worth watching some of the vacant ground around Hallmark, however. There is talk in some circles that some of the excess property near the plant may become available now that Hallmark has reorganized its production plants and has a better idea of its future plans.)
The East Lawrence interchange has vacant land, especially around the airport, but neighbors there are highly organized to fight industrial development that they believe would increase flooding problems in the area.
That leaves the Lecompton interchange. Think about what has happened here: This lawsuit essentially has delayed any marketing of the property to potential job creators for about five years. The rezoning and annexation of the property occurred in 2008, and the lawsuits were filed soon after. Different people will have different opinions on who is to blame for that, but what’s no longer in dispute is that the neighbors held the stronger cards in this hand.
We’ll see if that sparks a compromise.