Church’s lawsuit against City of Lawrence, which was previously dismissed, set for March bench trial after successful appeal
photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World
A church’s lawsuit against the City of Lawrence is headed to a bench trial in Douglas County District Court early next month, after first being introduced in late 2021, dismissed a few months later and revived in mid-2023 after a successful appeal.
First Presbyterian Church is suing the city and Dallas-based Fountain Residential Partners to halt a project that would combine two lots at 2300 Crestline Drive into an approximately 9-acre site and build a more than 300-bedroom apartment complex. The church is located across Crestline Drive from the project site. The lawsuit was first set to go to trial in early January, but in September 2023 was rescheduled to take place March 6 and 7.
Rather than one large building, plans for the project filed in late 2020 call for those units to be spread across 57 duplexes and six detached dwelling structures on the lot. Each of the buildings would be two or three stories tall and house two duplex-style units, for a total of 128 units.
The question of whether a site plan approved by the Lawrence City Commission in October 2021 is in violation of city code was one claim in the church’s original lawsuit, according to a mandate from the Kansas Court of Appeals filed in Douglas County District Court in May 2023. Specifically, the church argued that the property’s zoning category — “single-dwelling residential-office” — did not allow for 57 duplexes on one lot and that the site plan proposes a multidwelling use in the incorrect zoning district.
“At the core of all the claims was the church’s contention that the definition of ‘duplex’ in the city code does not permit 57 structures on a single lot,” the mandate reads. “(The code) defines a duplex as ‘(a) single structure that contains two primary dwelling units on one lot. The units may share common walls or common floor/ceilings.'”
The church contended that the developer was limited by that definition to a single structure, meaning it could only build one duplex in the development, while the city and developer argued that the definition doesn’t restrict the number of duplexes per lot and only requires each duplex to be located within the confines of one lot. The project’s developer told the Journal-World in December 2020 that the “cottage-style” duplex development was allowed under that zoning category and would meet the city’s definition of low-density residential development, thus avoiding a rezoning process.
The church also argued that as a neighbor to the property, it would be damaged by additional traffic, parking and drainage issues associated with the development.
photo by: Nick Krug
The district court granted the city and developer’s motions to dismiss the suit for “failure to state a claim,” a defense asserting that even if all the factual allegations in a complaint are true, they’re insufficient to establish a cause of action. The court adopted the defendants’ interpretation of whether the project complies with city code, since each building would be a single structure containing two primary dwelling units, all located on one lot.
“The district court found the duplex definition to be ‘clear, unambiguous and fatal to (the church’s) claims,'” the mandate reads.
But District Court Judge Mark Simpson eventually reversed course and classified that ruling as erroneous based on the findings of the Court of Appeals, which issued a mandate that the previous judgment be reversed and remanded. It found that the city code actually is ambiguous because it can be fairly interpreted in two or more ways.
“The court is sensitive to the tension presented by determining plaintiff’s likelihood of success at this stage in the proceedings while maintaining an open mind to all parties’ arguments for ultimate determination,” a memo from Simpson filed in June 2023 reads. “The parties can be assured that the court has not reached any conclusion about the ultimate outcome of this case and looks forward to deciding the case on a fully developed record.”
The church isn’t the only neighbor to have expressed opposition to the project. So has the Lawrence Child Development Center at 2333 Crestline Drive, and that’s because plans call for the apartment complex to surround the day care facility on three sides. One of the day care’s owners previously told the Journal-World that one concern was that residents in the multistory buildings would be able to look into the day care’s outdoor playground.
As of Thursday, the site surrounding the Lawrence Child Development Center remains undeveloped. The developer previously told the Journal-World that the complex was targeting fall of 2023 as an opening date.