Douglas County commissioners considering land purchase for consolidated public works operation — opening door to homeless shelter relocation

Leaders at the Lawrence Community Shelter are once again looking at a vacant warehouse building at 3701 E. 25th St. A deal by the county to purchase the property adjacent to the warehouse has reopened the possibility for the shelter to relocate there.

Douglas County leaders plan to acquire land that will house a consolidated Public Works complex and also allow the downtown homeless shelter to relocate.

The property included in the county’s plan covers 34 acres east of Douglas County Jail, 3601 E. 25th St.

County Administrator Craig Weinaug has worked on the plan with the support of county commissioners.

“One project allows another, serendipitously, to move forward,” Commissioner Nancy Thellman said Tuesday.

Shelter relocation

The other project is the relocation of the Lawrence Community Shelter. The acquisition of the property will make Douglas County the majority land owner covered by the Declaration of Protective Covenants. That committee recently ruled that the convenants on the property prohibited a homeless shelter on the site. Legal efforts by the homeless shelter to have that decision reversed weren’t successful, throwing the shelter’s relocation plans into disarray.

With the county in control, the members of the Covenant’s Board of Trustees would be asked to resign. County commissioners would then appoint new members to the board, Weinaug said.

“Given what the interests of the county are, we have reason to believe that the people who would be appointed to that would look upon that favorably,” Weinaug said of the homeless shelter relocation.

Weinaug said the homeless shelter would still need to purchase the land for which it holds a conditional-use permit. While Weinaug said the property owners were willing sellers, the decision rests with those parties.

Shelter director Loring Henderson said he would discuss with his board soon whether to restart negotiations to purchase the building from a local group led by Lawrence businessman Tim Keller.

“We are extraordinarily appreciative of what the county has done,” Henderson said. “They have been generous and supportive and creative to help resolve a situation that really is a communitywide issue. This is a community issue and they have taken a community position.”

Land acquisitions

The county would fund the purchase with state gas tax reimbursements, which total just below the $1.196 million purchasing price for the county property.

Lawrence businessman Steve Glass — who heads the ownership group of the property — confirmed that he’s reached a deal in principle with the county on the 34-acre site. But Glass, who has vigorously opposed efforts to locate a homeless shelter near his property, declined to comment further on the deal.

The county also is offering to purchase the property of two additional landowners near the proposed homeless shelter site. Additional funding for the acquisition of adjacent property — including Taylor Property and Printing Solutions Property, which includes Hillcrest Wrecker — would come from the county’s budgeted funds for capital improvement. The county will offer to purchase the additional land at its 2011 county-appraised values of $572,720 and $250,000, respectively.

Jerry Taylor — an owner of Hillcrest Wrecker, which is just across the street from the proposed homeless shelter site — said he hasn’t made any decisions about whether he’ll accept the county’s offer. He said he still has concerns about whether a homeless shelter will be disruptive to the business park.

“But I think the county is treating us fair,” Taylor said. “At least I feel like we have options now. Before I didn’t feel like I had any.”

Building not imminent

Regardless of whether the two additional properties are purchased, the sale of the future Public Works property and control of the covenants would shift to the county. From there, the timeline for building a Public Works facility is unknown.

“We have no immediate plans to build a Public Works facility next month or even next year,” Weinaug said. “We will be working toward planning that facility and determining when we’d be building one.”

The shelter’s timeline is not as lenient because of grant deadlines that expire this fall. Weinaug said there is an urgency for the shelter to move forward.

“It gives them a way to make the (conditional-use permit) usable,” he said. “It provides a means for resolving this community issue that has been a struggle for this community for the past three years or so.”

The Community Shelter is now at 10th and Kentucky streets. The shelter’s city permit to operate at the location — which has drawn complaints from neighbors — expires in April. Henderson said even if a deal is struck to buy the building at Franklin Park Circle, he is uncertain that the shelter could be moved into the new facility by April.

“But we understand that when April comes we have to be able to tell the community where we are going,” Henderson said.

Potential complex

Shelter leaders in July 2010 received the necessary permits from city commissioners to operate a 125-bed shelter at 3701 Franklin Park Circle. But then the covenant issues came on the property, which is a vacant warehouse. After the convenant issues were not resolved, the shelter let its option to purchase the building expire.

In addition to the larger sleeping area, the new shelter also would have space to separate individuals from homeless families, and the building has about 9,000 square feet that can be used for a jobs training program, Henderson said.

Thellman, who was a motivator in seeing the plan through, said the project is a logical step for the county. She also noted that should the shelter relocate near the jail, it may be able to use the facility’s re-entry program, made easier by shared populations and services.

“This creates a complex that we can grow into,” she said.

The item is scheduled to appear on the county commission agenda for 6:35 p.m. today at the Douglas County Courthouse.