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Proposed ecological observation station may create concerns for airport; city in running for more than $500,000 in arts grant

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Forget global warming. Forget global cooling. Forget all these pending ecological disasters. We've had one happen right here and now. Somehow, an hour of our weekend disappeared, and it created cataclysmic results this morning for my ecosystem: a smashed alarm clock, grumpy kids and a tube of something that certainly wasn't toothpaste.

I'm not sure a proposed project north of Lawrence is going to study how an hour of our weekend was stolen from us, but it does plan to make a host of other ecological observations. It also may spark a round of protest from local leaders.

Plans have been filed with the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Department for an ecological observatory tower on a portion of the Kansas University Field Station property, which is in the hills just north and east of the Lawrence Municipal Airport.

That's an important fact because airport leaders are expressing concern over the 136-foot tall tower that would be built as part of the project. They are worried, among other things, that the tower may occasionally make it difficult for the LifeStar helicopter based at the airport to fly.

The plans have been filed by NEON Inc., which is a Boulder, Colo.-based company that plans to build about 20 of these stations across the country as part of a project to "understand and forecast the impacts of climate change, land use change and invasive species," according to the application on file at City Hall.

The observatory, which will include the tower and a host of soil sensors, is expected to be in use for about 10 to 12 years, according to the application.

That's assuming that it gets approved for construction. Airport leaders already have begun to file objections to the project because it could cause the Federal Aviation Administration to change a key set of rules for the airport.

Richard Haig, the chair of the city's Aviation Advisory Board, told me the tower would be close enough to the airport that the FAA likely would change the airport's visibility requirements. Currently, aircraft can take off and land at the airport if there is at least 1.5 miles of visibility. With the tower, however, the new standard likely would be 2 miles of visibility, Haig said.

Haig said the LifeStar air ambulance service based at the airport is the entity that most likely would be affected by the new rules. The airport is located in the valley of the Kansas River, which makes it susceptible to periods of ground fog. Currently, as long as there is still 1.5 miles of visibility, the helicopter can take off in the fog, Haig said. If the rules are changed, the helicopter could not take off if there were less than 2 miles of visibility.

it is a little tough to predict how often this would be an issue, but Haig said it likely would ground the LifeStar service several times per year. Given the nature of its business, any time a LifeStar helicopter can't fly, the ramifications could be serious.

The city has filed an objection with the FAA about the tower, but Haig said he recently was notified that its objection was received past the comment deadline. The project, however, must still win land-use approvals from the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission and the Douglas County Commission. So, airport leaders likely will have another chance to speak against the tower.

Members of the scientific community, however, also may speak up in favor of the project. The observatory may produce some useful information for local researchers. According to the application, the data collected at the station will be available to the general public through an online portal.

In other news and notes from around town:

• The Lawrence Arts Center has cleared one hurdle in its quest to win a $500,000 grant that would bring more public art to the area. The Arts Center has been notified that it is one of 97 finalists for an ArtPlace America grant. Yes, with 96 other projects in the running, Lawrence still has some work to do. But more than 1,200 projects had expressed an interest in the grant, so Lawrence survived one big cut.

The project up for consideration is called Free State Connection: The Ninth Street Corridor Project. The project would involve several elements to improve Ninth Street from downtown to the new Warehouse Arts District in East Lawrence. For those of you who have forgotten, that's the area near Ninth and Delaware streets that includes the Poehler Lofts, Cider Gallery and several artist studios.

The $500,000 would be used to line the corridor with pieces of public art, and would serve as a model for how Lawrence could incorporate more art into its public projects. The city also would play a role in the project by making improvements to the street, sidewalks, lighting and other such infrastructure.

Look for more details on the project by mid-April, which is when the Arts Center has to submit a more detailed budget as part of the grant application.

• Finding grant money to do arts and culture stuff is a priority at Lawrence City Hall these days. (The use of words like "stuff" is why I don't have a career as a grant writer, by the way.) One place city leaders are now looking is just down the street to the Douglas County Courthouse. The city is applying for a $110,000 grant from the Douglas County Natural & Cultural Heritage Grant Program.

The money would be used to hire a "professional urban planning facilitator," who will host several meetings and identify "natural, cultural and historic sites" within the new Lawrence Cultural District. That district is basically the downtown area and large parts of East Lawrence.

Once interesting sites are identified, the city then will work to connect the sites through signs, marketing materials, a smartphone app, and other aspects that would make it easy people to visit all the sites.

City commissioners at their 6:35 p.m. meeting on Tuesday will consider authorizing the grant application.

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