To the surprise of neighbors, bulldozer begins to demolish disputed stand of trees near Clinton Parkway and Crestline

Just days after winning a key victory to stop a large student apartment complex from being built in their neighborhood, residents near Clinton Parkway and Crestline Drive suffered a loss via a bulldozer on Friday.

About 9 a.m. Friday, a bulldozer began plowing through a mature stand of trees on the site where the 522-bedroom apartment complex was once slated to go. The trees had become a complicating factor in the apartment complex winning necessary zoning and land use approvals from City Hall. The site is at the southwest corner of Clinton Parkway and Crestline Drive.

Landowners in the area are looking for the property owner to be punished for the clear cutting.

“We need to see what the city is going to do about this,” said Kenneth Prost, an owner of the adjacent Lawrence Child Development Center. “This is very aggressive.”

Aggressive, but perhaps not illegal, even though the trees supposedly have some protections in the city code. On Friday afternoon, it appeared those protections did not extend to stopping a bulldozer from pushing them over.

Scott McCullough, the city’s planning director, told me in an email that the stand of trees do fall under the city’s “sensitive lands” regulations. The development group was made aware of that definition when it filed its plans for the apartment project. The sensitive lands designation is meant to protect important environmental attributes of a property.

However, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, that doesn’t mean the trees can’t be bulldozed. McCullough confirmed there is no fine the city can levy for taking the trees down. Instead, the city might be able to require new trees be planted on the site, if a new development plan is filed for the property. However, that sounded less than certain.

“That will be a discussion had at the time of such a future request,” McCullough said in the email.

If you remember, this is the same site where the apartment complex was proposing to build around three sides of the day care, after it failed to reach a deal to buy the day care property. Last week, the Planning Commission dealt that apartment complex proposal a major setback by denying a comprehensive plan change that would have allowed an apartment complex on the site.

The apartment complex was proposed by Gilbane Development, a major builder of student apartment complexes. But Gilbane never actually purchased the property, and I’ve been told that it has canceled its contract to purchase the property. That is probably a sign that Gilbane has given up on the Lawrence project.

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On Friday, it wasn’t entirely clear who ordered the trees to be bulldozed. The bulldozer operator told Prost that he didn’t know who hired him. Presumably, though, only the property owner would have the authority to order work on the site. The property is owned by Iowa Street Associates, a company that is in turned owned by a California investment firm. The company has an Overland Park representative, but an attempt to reach him was not immediately successful.

I’ve got a call into city officials as well to get their reaction. City Hall was notified of the clear cutting shortly after 9:15 a.m., but staff wasn’t able to immediately get to the scene to order the work to be stopped. When I left the scene about 10:45 a.m., city staff wasn’t yet on site. McCullough said he did get on site about 11:45 a.m.. He did talk with the contractor about the circumstances regarding the trees, and asked him to get in touch with the property owner. The contractor, however, said “if the code did not prevent him from removing the trees that he would continue,” according to McCullough.

In addition to the day care, the property is adjacent to a residential neighborhood. Residents of that neighborhood had come out strongly against the apartment project. The stand of trees backed up to their rear yards in many cases.

Dan and Liz Berghout live about 100 feet from the trees. They told of how their oldest daughter used to play in the area and also how the trees served as an effective noise barrier and a good habitat for wildlife.

“Those trees add a tremendous amount to the neighborhood,” Dan Berghout said.

The incident likely will spark several debates. The city protecting trees on private property has been controversial in the past. It has brought up questions of the rights of property owners. However, I suspect another debate will center on what the city is able to do when someone does take aggressive action to remove environmentally sensitive elements from their land.

As this incident has demonstrated, labeling the trees as something that ought to be protected does little to actually protect them.

A bulldozer clears trees Friday morning on property near the southwest corner of Clinton Parkway and Crestline Drive.