City of Lawrence agrees to purchase house found to have century-old city tunnel underneath

photo by: Kansas Historical Society

A map of Lawrence from 1880 shows a large ravine running through the city, from Mount Oread to the Kansas River. The ravine was replaced by a brick tunnel in 1911, but no easements were recorded at the time.

Updated at 4:28 p.m. Wednesday

The City of Lawrence has agreed to purchase the house of a couple who sued the city after discovering a century-old tunnel directly under their home.

Sarah Merriman and Donna Geisler bought their house at 812 Ohio St. in 2017 with plans to demolish the ranch home on the property and build a bungalow with a basement. Those plans were disrupted when it was discovered that a city drainage tunnel ran corner to corner under the home, at a depth of only a few feet, even though no easement was recorded with the city.

As the Journal-World reported in 2018, the couple asked the city to relocate the tunnel, which is still in use, but the city declined because of the significant cost of doing so. In response, Merriman and Geisler filed a lawsuit against the city last year, saying the city is trespassing on their property and asking that the city award them at least $75,000 in damages and either relocate the tunnel or purchase the property from them.

The 6-by-6 foot arched brick drainage tunnel was constructed in 1911 in response to a typhoid outbreak and follows the course of a ravine that once ran from Mount Oread to the Kansas River. Typically, city utilities are built along city streets, alleys or other right-of-way, but the stormwater tunnel instead cuts through parts of about 14 private properties in the Oread and Old West Lawrence neighborhoods, according to updated city storm sewer maps.

photo by: Rochelle Valverde

The home at 812 Ohio St. is pictured on July 8, 2020. The City of Lawrence agreed to purchase the property as part of the settlement of a lawsuit.

The city previously argued in its response to the lawsuit that the tunnel was constructed lawfully and with full knowledge and participation from the property owners at the time and that storm water inlets in the neighborhood were an indicator of its presence. Though no recorded easement had been found, the city argued that those circumstances and the city’s continued use of the tunnel meant the city had a type of implied easement under Kansas law.

As part of its meeting Tuesday, the Lawrence City Commission voted unanimously, with Commissioner Lisa Larsen and Vice Mayor Brad Finkeldei abstaining, to authorize a contract for the city to purchase the house for $222,500. According to the purchase contract and a related release, the city will become the owner of the home and the lawsuit will be dismissed with prejudice, meaning that it cannot be brought back to court.

The release states that it is the result of a compromise and shall not be considered as an admission of liability or responsibility of the city, which “continue(s) to deny such liability and to disclaim such responsibility.” In an emailed message to the Journal-World, Merriman and Geisler said their only comment regarding the resolution of the case would be that they are pleased to have the litigation resolved.

Deputy City Attorney Randy Larkin‎ said in an email to the Journal-World that once the closing on the purchase of 812 Ohio St. takes place, tentatively scheduled for July 15, that the case would be dismissed. Larkin said that the city believes that it is a fair resolution of the case.

As far as the future of the Old West Lawrence home, Larkin said the city has not decided what it will do with the property. He said city staff will evaluate the property and make a recommendation as to its use in the near future. He noted that the city plans to replace the drainage tunnel, known as the Henry-McCook Storm Sewer, within “the next number of years,” provided the project receives funding in the city’s budget.


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