Lawrence city leaders discuss concerns after developer withdraws rezoning request for duplex project

photo by: City of Lawrence/BG Consultants

A concept plan shows a potential layout for a development at 1100 Kasold Drive.

The most recent infill development project to go through City Hall will likely not be the last to raise protests from neighbors, and commissioners on both sides of the vote hope the city’s development code update, which began recently, will result in a better process in the future.

Last month, a request to increase the density of a 3.4-acre parcel of land at 1100 Kasold Drive to allow for duplexes to be built there instead of single-family homes did not get the necessary votes to move forward. Because the neighbors filed a protest petition, the rezoning request required the approval of a supermajority, or at least four of the commissioners. One commissioner who voted against the project later asked to further discuss it, but the developer ultimately withdrew the project.

In a letter to the commission, the developer, Roger Johnson, said he was withdrawing the rezoning request because the church selling the property no longer needed to sell it and because of issues with the process. Johnson said although he met the requirements in the city’s comprehensive plan, he felt the request was denied due to the neighborhood’s “not in my backyard” opinions, and that the situation made the city’s processes look unreliable.

“It gives our city an image that when you do the things suggested by the governing body, check all the boxes you will still get denied,” Johnson wrote.

The planning department and the planning commission recommended that the City Commission approve the rezoning request. The planning department report cited several goals of the comprehensive plan, Plan 2040, that aligned with the project, including infill, density, and the goal of incorporating a variety of housing types, densities and price ranges into neighborhoods. Ultimately, planning staff found that the request was “strongly in alignment” with Plan 2040. Neighbors, meanwhile, filed the protest petition, expressing concerns about such issues as traffic, parking and storm water drainage and the potential for the project to negatively affect property values.

Commissioner Brad Finkeldei, who previously served on the planning commission and is chair of the committee working to update the city’s development code, said that no matter what the city’s code and comprehensive plan say, if the city is going to do infill development it will take the commission approving it. However, he noted the rezoning request did have three votes — which absent the protest petition would have been enough for it to pass — with the potential for more discussion.

“I certainly do not want the community to take one vote and extrapolate that to a lack of commitment to infill development,” Finkeldei said.

The Land Development Code Update Steering Committee has begun a two-year process to update the code, which determines where and how the city grows, to reflect Plan 2040. The comprehensive plan took years to develop and was approved by both the Douglas County Commission and the City Commission. Finkeldei said if it is agreed that the plan represents what the community as a whole should look like, he thought the code update could address some of the common conflicts that tend to arise with infill development.

“I think you can create codes that allow that shared vision to become reality,” Finkeldei said. “So I do think there are ways to make the code encourage and allow for infill development in ways that aren’t allowed in our current code”

For instance, Finkeldei said that might mean allowing accessory dwelling units by right in residential districts, as was recently done in California, or allowing duplexes by right in single-family areas. If ADUs or duplexes were allowed by right, building those structures would not require a rezoning process. Though he said he was not necessarily suggesting it, he noted that there are cities that have gotten rid of zoning districts altogether and instead only manage how projects are built.

Mayor Courtney Shipley and Commissioner Amber Sellers voted against the request, though Sellers later asked for the request to be reconsidered. Shipley, who was previously chair of the Lawrence Association of Neighborhoods and also lives directly across the street from the proposed project, said ahead of her vote that even though Plan 2040 calls for infill and density, it also speaks about maintaining the form and pattern of established neighborhoods.

In reference to the letter’s concerns, Shipley said she didn’t think it was an accurate narrative that the city does not have reliable processes, and that there have also been infill projects that have been successful. She said she still supported infill and density, but projects also have to take into account the surrounding neighborhood.

“There’s a lot of infill projects,” Shipley said. “Not all of them are appropriate for every spot, and even staff says that, even Plan 2040 says that. You have to look at the surroundings and see what’s appropriate.”

For her part, Shipley said she also thought the development code update could improve the process in the future. She said communication “early and often” is key to success, and oftentimes conflict can be managed if a developer engages with neighbors at the beginning of the process. For instance, she said she heard of a city that requires developers to have a meeting with neighbors ahead of the application process. Like Finkeldei, Shipley noted there are also cities that are getting rid of zoning districts altogether. Ultimately, she said she thought the Land Development Code Update Steering Committee would find the right balance.

“I have faith that that group will look at all those things and be reasoned and fair in how people who already live there can be a part of solutions and changing neighborhoods, without being disenfranchised or bullied,” Shipley said. “I think that the steering committee that we appointed is balanced, and I have great faith that they’re going to come up with some good solutions.”


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