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City renews threat of eminent domain at dilapidated East Lawrence property

All we need is Donald Trump and his mop of hair to make this real estate deal more interesting.

City commissioners find themselves in the middle of a unique real estate transaction that is focused on 1106 Rhode Island St. in East Lawrence. As we've previously reported, commissioners have become concerned about the dilapidated condition of the old house and barn on the property, which is just east of the Judicial and Law Enforcement Center.

Members of the Barland family own the property. They've cleaned up much of the yard, including holding a much-publicized auction of old Packard automobiles that had accumulated at the site.

But the condition of the vacant house and barn is still in rough shape. The city has said the Barland family needs to either fix it, sell it to someone who will or — here's where it gets pretty unique — the city will use eminent domain to take over ownership of the property.

The city started the eminent domain process in February, but hasn't yet taken the next step in the process. In the meantime, at least one buyer — and perhaps up to three — have emerged for the property.

Lawrence architect Stan Hernly has confirmed that he's put together an investment group to buy the property and rehabilitate the house and barn. The house would become a 3-bedroom, 2-bath rental house, and an addition would allow for a 1-bedroom, 1-bath apartment. The barn would be converted into about 2,700 square feet of professional office space.

But Hernly and the Barland family haven't yet agreed on a price. City commissioners at their meeting this week pulled out their eminent domain hammer to try to move the process along. Commissioners gave the Barland family three weeks to either accept or reject Hernly's offer. If a deal for the property isn't struck in the three-week period, city commissioners all agreed that they'll take the next step in the eminent domain process.

But members of the Barland family said they also are negotiating with two other parties. Brian Barland said said those deals may not produce the same type of development as Hernly's proposal, but the buyers appear willing to best Hernly's offer for the property. (Details about the other potential developments or about Hernly's offer for the property haven't been disclosed.)

Barland said his family is working through the process of evaluating what is best for the property and what is best for their financial interests. Whether that process will be completed in three weeks remains to be seen.

Brian Barland did remind commissioners that the condition of this property didn't happen overnight. The decline of the property occurred over several decades, mainly under the watch of Barland's late father. The city has codes and a fine structure to address such neglect of property, but it is not clear how much the city ever pursued that path.

"It took 50 years to get to this point," Barland said. "It is not going to take 50 years to make a deal happen. But it does take some time to come up with a fair price for the property."

The conversation rankled City Commissioner Terry Riordan, who has restored several homes and lives in an Oread house that is on the National Register of Historic Places.

"We now have someone who wants to save this house, and now we're arguing about money," Riordan said to Barland. "Doesn't it bother you some that you caused this? Isn't there any interest in trying to save that house? What we really should be talking about is preservation."

It also remains to be seen whether Hernly's project will have everything it needs to proceed, even if it does secure the property. Hernly provided information to the city indicating that he would be seeking an approximately $40,000 "development grant" from the city to make the proposed $800,000 project pencil out.

Commissioners this week gave no indication whether they would support such a grant request.

There's also still the possibility that the Barland family may choose to take its chances with the eminent domain process. That process will require the city to pay for the property. The price would be determined by Douglas County District Court, which reviews a set of appraisals to make its determination.

If the city ends up with the property, it plans to take proposals and sell the property to a party interested in restoring the structures.

In case you are wondering why the city doesn't just take the more traditional route of declaring the structure unsafe and ordering it repaired or either demolished, the house and barn do have some interesting history behind them that would cause historic preservationists to balk at their demolition. The house dates back to 1871 and the barn was also constructed near then. Both served as the headquarters for the city's largest dray wagon business, which was run by a colorful Irish man named Rhody Delahunty.

The house and barn already are included in a broader historic district that includes the area just east of the Douglas County Courthouse. So, if the city allowed the structures to be torn down, it would be doing exactly what it says it doesn't want people to do in historic areas.

As I said, the only thing that would make this deal more interesting is Donald Trump. Maybe he can lend us one of his celebrity apprentices. Perhaps Dennis Rodman to the rescue?

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City to use eminent domain to take over dilapidated East Lawrence property; Just Food seeks $25,000 in CDBG funding to expand dairy, meat offerings

Well, Town Talk is playing catch-up today. As I previously reported, I was off on Friday to help park cars at the annual Lawrence Auto Swap Meet. And I was off on Monday to clean mud out of places that I didn’t know I had. So, that leaves us with several items of note on tonight’s Lawrence City Commission agenda to update you on. Here’s a look:

• The city is continuing to move down an unusual road in its efforts to see that a piece of East Lawrence property is cleaned up. The city is going through the process of using eminent domain to take over ownership of the property at 1106 Rhode Island St.

For those of you trying to picture the location, it is just east of the Judicial and Law Enforcement Center. Or perhaps some of you remember it as the property that for years had multiple old Packard automobiles stored in its overgrown backyard.

The property — owned by the Barland family, which once owned the city’s Packard dealership — has a house and a barn. The house hasn’t been lived in for years, and its condition has been deteriorating.

The city has taken code enforcement action against the Barlands, but the city finds itself in an odd situation. Usually, the big hammer in a code enforcement case of this nature is that ultimately the city can declare the property unsafe and order it to be demolished. But in this case, the property is of a historic nature. The house dates back to 1871, and was owned by one of the city’s more prominent Irish businessmen — Rhody Delahunty, who operated his successful dray wagon business from the site.

Such history makes it likely that the city’s Historic Resources Commission would balk at tearing down the structures. The city has asked the Barland family to come up with ideas to either refurbish/redevelop the property or sell it to someone who is willing to do so. The family hired an architect to come up with proposals, but it hasn’t committed to any of the ideas. It also hasn’t been willing to sell the property, although it has attracted interest from the Lawrence Preservation Alliance.

So, commissioners in February started the process to use eminent domain to acquire the property. At tonight’s meeting, commissioners are being asked to take the next step: authorizing staff members to file a petition with Douglas County District Court that would start the legal proceedings.

The way the process works is that the court will come up with a price that the city must pay for the property. The process can be stopped at any time, if the Barlands and the city come to an agreement on the future of the property.

As for what the city would do with this deteriorating piece of property, that’s not entirely clear. City officials have said their plan would be to accept proposals from parties interested in restoring the property. The most common ideas have been for the property to be restored as a residence, and the barn perhaps as an artist studio or some other type of work space.

We’ll see how the process goes. The city certainly uses eminent domain to purchase easements for roads and utility projects where it can agree on a price with a landowner. But in my 20 years of covering City Hall, this is the first time I remember eminent domain being used to purchase a rundown piece of property. It will be interesting to see if this is the beginning of a new trend because there’s certainly more than one rundown piece of property in the city.

• Here’s a case where eminent domain wasn’t needed. The city is beginning to purchase easements to run a major water line from the Kaw Water Treatment Plant, across the Kansas River and into North Lawrence.

On tonight’s agenda, the city commission is set to approve paying $80,600 for 25,530 square feet of property. The property is vacant commercial property at 1000 N. Third Street, which is just south of the I-70 Business Center. The property is owned by a trust controlled by Lawrence businessman Samih Staitieh.

The price for the property — it pencils out to $3.15 per square foot — was based on independent appraisals. More purchases for the water line project are expected. The multimillion-dollar project is designed to provide an additional main water line to North Lawrence.

• The recent election of City Commissioner Jeremy Farmer has created an extra piece of paper work for Lawrence City Hall. Commissioners tonight are being asked to approve a conflict of interest waiver that will allow Farmer’s employer to apply for Community Development Block Grant Funding.

Farmer is the CEO of Just Food, the not-for-profit food bank that serves the county. A city advisory board is recommending that Just Food be awarded $25,000 in CDBG funding to buy a refrigerated food truck. But in order for the organization to receive the funding, the city must send a form to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development disclosing the conflict of interest and why the money should be awarded to the agency.

The more interesting part is what the truck will allow Just Food to do. Farmer told me the truck will be used to go to grocery stores, restaurants, convenience stores and other locations that often have to dispose of aging meat, dairy and produce.

Currently, Just Food doesn’t have a way to transport refrigerated material from the stores to its distribution center in East Lawrence. Consequently, Farmer estimates grocers and other are throwing away “thousands of dollars of food per week.” Most of the perishable items are pulled off the shelves several days before their expiration dates, which gives Just Food time to distribute it to needy families.

Farmer said the program is expected to significantly increase Just Food’s ability to provide milk, eggs, butter, meat and some produce to families.

“This is going to be a huge, huge deal for us,” Farmer said. “I haven’t seen butter and eggs down here in a long time.”

Farmer hopes to have the truck later this summer, but he said the timeline is dependent upon Washington, D.C.. Administrators with the CDBG program are watching to see if the sequestration delays or cuts the amount of funding available to the CDBG program.

City commissioners meet at 6:35 p.m. tonight at City Hall.

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