Hundreds of unsuspecting homeowners may see tax bills rise to pay for northwest Lawrence road project
photo by: Nick Krug
Several hundred northwest Lawrence homes may get a one-time increase of a few thousand dollars on their property tax bills.
The reason? The multiyear debate over how to improve Queens Road, the crumbling road that is adjacent to about $100 million of new northwest Lawrence developments.
As I recently reported, I’ve been receiving several questions from readers about what is going on with the Queens Road issue. Evidently, their tax radars must have been finely attuned because a major development is about to happen.
Chuck Soules, the city’s public works director, confirmed to me that the city is about to propose that several hundred more residential property owners — and a few more commercial property owners — be asked to pay for the approximately $5 million worth of improvements that are proposed for the road. If approved, the plan would require many typical residential property owners to pay a one-time, approximately $2,000 property tax assessment to fund the road improvements, Soules said.
But, let’s back up, briefly. For those of you have forgotten, Queens Road is the road that is just west of Congressional Drive, or the second road west of Wakarusa Drive. A trip to Queens Road is cheaper than a trip to the Grand Canyon, and you still get to see great craters. The road is basically a thinly paved township road that has begun to disintegrate as city-like traffic has started to use it. The Links apartment project — about 600 units and counting — has been built on the west side of the road, along with several other large apartment complexes. A large number of single family residential homes have been built on the east side of the road.
photo by: Journal-World photo/Chad Lawhorn
Despite popular opinion, the city doesn’t often pay for new streets to serve new development. They are often paid for by the properties that directly benefit from the new street. The process used is called a special benefit district, and it involves the city financing the cost of the improvements and then adding a special assessment onto the property tax bills of the properties in the benefit district.
The key to this Queens Road project is whether your property is in the benefit district. That is what, potentially, is set to change. Originally, the city had proposed a benefit district that included the new apartment complexes on the west side of Queens Road and included single family houses and some apartments/townhomes that were within approximately a quarter mile from Queens Road. Here’s a map the city previously has published:
Now the city is proposing the district stretch approximately a half-mile east of Queens Road and stretch all the way to the eastern edge of George Williams Way, west of Queens Road. I don’t have a map yet to share with you, but the expansion will impact hundreds of properties. Some areas included:
• The Walmart at Sixth and Wakarusa
• The softball field and related property attached to Free State High School. The boundary line for the benefit district goes straight north of Wakarusa Drive where Wakarusa begins to curve at Overland Drive. That puts the boundary just east of the softball field and just west of the baseball and football fields. Although the school district doesn’t pay property taxes, it would be required to pay special assessments.
• Homes along Landon Court and Earhart Circle, which is an area northeast of Wakarusa Drive
• Homes in the new Oregon Trail addition, which include Chimney Rocks Circle, Freemont Drive, Three Forks Drive, Headwaters Drive and others
• St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church
• Hunter’s Ridge Apartment Complex
The proposed changes are going to make some people happy and some people angry. If your property was in the original benefit district, the amount you would pay for the road would go down because the costs are being spread over a larger number of properties. If you weren’t originally in the district, you are now facing a brand new cost of about $2,000 for the typical residential property owner. The city hasn’t figured specific amounts for specific properties, but that was the estimate Soules gave for a typical residential lot.
The amount can be paid all at once, or it can be added to your property tax bill in 10 annual installments.
None of this is a done deal. The process to enlarge the benefit district is just getting started. Step No. 1 will be a letter from the city. Property owners who are in the district should expect to receive those in the next couple of days. After that there will be public hearings, and the City Commission could decide to scrap or modify the plan.
Some property owners can protest the creation of the benefit district, but others can’t. Some, likely unwittingly, signed away their right to protest their benefit district when they bought their homes and signed their mortgage documents. I described how that happens in a 2009 article. Yes, this Queens road issue has been brewing that long.
The details get more complicated, but in basic terms, if more than half of the property owners — both by area and number — sign the petition, the benefit district can’t move forward.
Expect a contentious process. City commissioners should expect to hear arguments about whether properties a half-mile away from the road really will benefit from the improvement of Queens Road. As noted, city staff originally proposed a smaller benefit district for some of those reasons. But Soules told me he thinks the city can justify the larger district, which city commissioners had requested be brought forward as an option. He said it will help with emergency access to the entire area, and will help relieve traffic on other streets in the area.
“It is like a grid system,” Soules said. “For lack of a better word, it creates another access point for those properties.”
But it also could create a financial hardship for some property owners.
“I understand that there are people who didn’t plan for this expense,” Soules said. “Some of them may be on fixed incomes. It is a tough situation.”
The status quo also is creating problems. Soules acknowledged the road is a mess and difficult to maintain.
“There is a piece between Wakarusa and Overland that has really disintegrated,” he said.
In the meantime, development companies have spent more than $100 million building new residences along the road, with the belief that the city had a plan in place to improve the road leading to their properties. They are learning that plans in Lawrence sometimes take awhile.
If this new benefit district plan is approved, Soules said the road could theoretically could be under construction in 2019. However, he also said there is a chance it could get pushed to 2020 because they city would need to find another $350,000 to pay its share of special assessments. Two city properties — the vacant land behind Walmart that will house a police headquarters building, and the water tower property next to St. Margaret’s church — are included in the proposed benefit district.
The city — perhaps just like some homeowners — didn’t include any money in the 2019 budget to pay for those assessments.