County Commission rejects amendment to Plan 2040, creating new uncertainties for proposed housing, retail along SLT
photo by: Matt Resnick/Journal-World
Updated at 11:23 a.m. Thursday, Feb. 8
Douglas County commissioners on Wednesday rejected an amendment to the joint city-county comprehensive plan that now will complicate how a major development project along the South Lawrence Trafficway can move forward.
On Wednesday, the County Commission voted 2-1 against the amendment to Plan 2040, which would have revised its land use map and its residential and open space uses within the area of the proposed 177-acre New Boston Crossing project, which is proposed for the intersection of U.S. Highway 59 and the SLT in south Lawrence. The vote came a day after the Lawrence City Commission approved the amendment 4-1; without the approval of both bodies, the joint plan can’t be amended.
Commissioner Patrick Kelly was the lone member of the County Commission to support the amendment, which would have aimed to circumvent floodplain and open space concerns related to the mixed-use development. Despite expressing numerous concerns about the project that would be located near the Kansas Highway 10 interchange on Iowa Street, Kelly said voting against it would be like taking some of the city’s governing authority away from it.
“I personally have an aspiration that we stop building on a floodplain, but the city has regulations that allow (it to build) on a floodplain,” Kelly said. “This is on city-annexed land, and as much as I don’t like their choices, it’s their annexed land, and I want to be cautious as a county, directing our city partners on what to do.”
As the Journal-World reported, the Wichita-based developers behind the New Boston Crossing project wanted to modify the boundary of the Wakarusa River floodplain, which overlaps with a little less than half of the 177-acre project area, then, through grading and fill on the site, lift a portion of the project area out of the existing regulatory floodplain.
Commission Chair Karen Willey said she was still concerned that the area was “uniquely prone to flooding.”
“We have a 50-year-old reservoir with a 75-year-old lifespan, so it will continue to silt in — that is what they are designed to do — then we will have a reckoning as a community for what happens with that too,” Willey said. “So the ability to control, to capture floodwaters will also continue to decrease over the lifespan of the reservoir.”
Around a dozen members of the public commented at the meeting, and most of them were critical of the New Boston Crossing project. Rural Douglas County resident Margaret Kramar said she thought the project would result in increased traffic congestion around Iowa Street and Highway 59, “resulting in more carbon emissions, less green space and more suburban sprawl.”
“If we want to live on a habitable planet, we’re headed in the wrong direction with developments such as these,” Kramar said. “Because whether we like it or not, nature bats last.”
New Boston Crossing has been one of the largest potential development projects proposed for Lawrence in years; the early plans called for adding hundreds of homes and tens of thousands of square feet of retail and hotel space across 177 acres of agricultural land just south of the SLT.
photo by: Matt Resnick/Journal-World
Patrick Watkins, a Lawrence-based attorney representing the developer, told the Journal-World after the meeting that he thought “it ought to be the city that ultimately has the final decision.”
“That’s what the code allows,” Watkins said. “Ultimately, the city is going to decide how this project is zoned.”
However, the denial of the comprehensive plan amendment may complicate those zoning approvals. If city commissioners ultimately approve the rezonings, they technically would be going against their own comprehensive plan. Cities sometimes can face additional legal liabilities if they approve zonings that are inconsistent with their comprehensive plans.
During Wednesday’s meeting, Kelly said he didn’t agree with how the City Commission has voted thus far on the project, “but I understood why they did.”
“They just chose a different set of values,” Kelly said. “But I’m real nervous in this space about saying that I know more than you about land that has been annexed in the city.”
In other business, commissioners unanimously approved the establishment of an equipment reserve fund for Consolidated Fire District No. 1. As the Journal-World reported in July, the rural fire district did not previously have a fund to replace aging equipment, but it set aside $150,000 in the previous budget cycle to go toward an equipment reserve fund, and it plans to do so again with the next budget cycle to bring the total to $300,000. As the fund grows, it should be easier for the district to make big purchases. In July, Mike Baxter, the district’s fire chief, told commissioners that the issue will only get more urgent, considering that 19 of the 37 vehicles in the district’s fleet are at least 20 years old.
Commissioners were originally scheduled to consider a new process for enforcing the county’s animal code, but that did not happen at Wednesday’s meeting. County Administrator Sarah Plinsky told commissioners that she was still consulting with legal counsel “about the nature of the resolution.”
Editor’s note: This article has been corrected to clarify that the county’s rejection of the comprehensive plan amendment does not eliminate the ability for the New Boston Crossing project to move forward. It has also been revised to correctly state what Commissioner Willey said about the reservoir silting in.