Lawrence City Commission weighs who should pay $5 million cost to improve suburban road

The City of Lawrence has budgeted .6 million for 2018 to reconstruct Queens Road from Sixth Street to the city limits.

Property owners near Queens Road — the rutted and partially gravel road running through a swath of new homes and apartments in northwest Lawrence — may have thousands of dollars added to their property taxes to improve the roadway.

As currently proposed, nearly all of the $5.3 million to reconstruct the road and add a traffic signal at its intersection with West Sixth Street will be split between dozens of property owners in the benefit district. Instead of seeing the cost showing up on their mortgage payments or tax bills, homeowners near Queens Road said they want the city at large to pay for the improvements.

In speaking to the City Commission Tuesday, many homeowners noted that there are other roadways in and out of their neighborhoods and that they weren’t aware they were in a potential benefit district when they purchased their homes.

“We bought our homes completely unaware that this project could ever grow to the extent that it has or that it would become our financial responsibility to pay for it,” said Pat Miller, who lives in Park West and owns a home in the district. “Very simply, we just can’t afford it. It seems blatantly unfair to place this burden on our subdivision.”

Developers of the area, and by extension the current property owners, agreed not to protest the benefit district when the properties were platted years ago. Despite that, plans in the city’s 2016 budget indicated that the city — and its taxpayers at large –would foot half the bill for the Queens Road improvements. However, that has since changed.

The current proposal only has the city paying about 7 percent of the cost, and commissioners listened to nearly two hours of public comment Tuesday from homeowners in the proposed benefit district who felt they’d been misled.

“The city is now going back on its word,” said Kay Brada, president of the Westwood Hills Homeowners Association, which is also located within the district.

The commission was scheduled to vote on whether to finalize the benefit district and order the improvements, but Brada and other property owners asked that commissioners review the proposal further and consider taking on more of the costs itself or assessing them to developers in the district. Under the current proposal, depending on the size of their property, homeowners would pay several hundred to several thousand dollars in total toward the improvements.

Public Works Director Chuck Soules noted that as proposed, the assessments for the district would be calculated based on square footage and would mean that developments and other commercial properties are paying for about 68 percent of the costs of the improvements.

The city at large is permitted to pay up to 95 percent of the cost, and Commissioner Matthew Herbert said he thinks the city ought to look at paying for the improvements.

“I don’t live within the benefit district of Queens Road, but I certainly have just as great a likelihood of driving on it than anyone else who spoke up here tonight,” Herbert said.

Mayor Leslie Soden also said she doesn’t have a problem with the city taking on a greater share, but others were more hesitant. Vice Mayor Stuart Boley said the topic needs to be looked at in context, and that the discussion gets at an issue that expands beyond just Queens Road.

“This road is going to be built, as I understand it, to accommodate the growth out in this part of the city,” Boley said. “And should people (elsewhere in the city) have to pay for that?”

Soules noted that if the city does decide to take on a bigger share, that other projects in the city’s capital improvement plan will have to be removed or postponed to compensate.

Boley said implications of the decision need to be considered.

“If we say, ‘Oh, we’ll just have the city do it,’ then people who paid their specials like my neighborhood 50 years ago, we’re going to be paying for that,” Boley said. “So, let’s put this in the context of the whole city. Let’s talk about, when we grow, does growth pay for itself, or does the city subsidize it?”

Commissioner Mike Amyx suggested that the commission defer the item and have city staff reconsider the proposal. He said he’d like staff to look at additional options regarding the district to give the commission a better idea of what alternatives it has.

Ultimately, commissioners voted unanimously to defer the decision to consider additional options, including changing how the money is assessed to those in the benefit district, expanding the district or increasing the citywide taxpayer share.

Later, Amyx said that despite all the conversations and plans over the years — including the plan to have the city pay half the bill — he didn’t think any of the options have been removed from the table.

“I think there has been a lot of things said about the way that that’s going to be paid for,” Amyx said. “There’s been a lot of comments and it’s been discussed in multiple ways. Obviously, that’s not the way that ended up happening, it didn’t get funded, the improvement wasn’t made. So now we’re back to where we once were.”