At Board of Realtors forum, City Commission candidates weigh in on Land Development Code update, housing density and more

photo by: Austin Hornbostel

The Lawrence Board of Realtors and Lawrence Home Builders Association hosted a forum for Lawrence City Commission candidates at Maceli's Banquet Hall, 1031 New Hampshire St., on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2023.

The candidates vying for three seats on the Lawrence City Commission shared their visions Wednesday for housing development, density and more.

The candidate forum, which was not open to the public, was largely housing-focused since it was hosted by the Lawrence Board of Realtors and the Lawrence Home Builders Association. Five of the candidates running in the November general election — incumbents Brad Finkeldei and Courtney Shipley, former commissioner Mike Dever and newcomers Dustin Stumblingbear and Justine Burton — were present at the forum. The third incumbent commissioner whose term is expiring, Amber Sellers, was unavailable due to a work commitment, organizers said.

At the forum, many of the questions centered on revisions to the city’s Land Development Code, which are currently in the works as part of a two-year process that began in August 2022.

Commission candidates were first asked whether they think there are any provisions in the current code that create barriers for development. Most of the group — including Stumblingbear, Shipley and Dever — said they thought that the current code doesn’t allow for enough flexibility for accessory dwelling units, which are smaller residential units located on the same lot as a standalone single-family home. Shipley and Dever also mentioned a desire to amend arbitrary setback regulations to encourage more creative multifamily dwellings and to eliminate what Shipley called an “antiquated” approach to parking.

Shipley said a lot of the city’s ideas about parking requirements and enforcement have led to a “giant waste of space,” but she didn’t expand further on that issue.

Finkeldei serves as a member of the steering committee leading the process of updating the code, and he said it’s hard to pick just one or two provisions he’d change when the document as a whole is so important.

“I do think it’s the most long-lasting impact on our community going forward,” Finkeldei said.

Burton said she wasn’t familiar enough with the Land Development Code to give an answer to that question.

Commission candidates also had a lot to say about how they might increase density in Lawrence, and they all placed an emphasis on “creative” ways to develop housing. That included further mention of the potential of expanded allowances for accessory dwelling units from Finkeldei. For Stumblingbear, part of the answer was developing more mixed-use buildings within a tighter land area and making sure roadways are more conducive for biking and walking.

Shipley and Dever talked about how redeveloping existing property could add more housing density. Dever specifically pointed to projects like Poehler Lofts in the Warehouse Arts District, which a little more than a decade ago was boarded up and vacant. That development, he said, paved the way for the district around it to revitalize and thrive.

“Just by redeveloping and investing the city’s money and redoing brick streets on a couple of blocks, that’s all we had to do to create that kind of energy and excitement,” Dever said. “That’s the kind of Lawrence, that’s the kind of town we need to see as part of the densification of the community, so that people want to come here and so people can live, play and enjoy working in Lawrence.”

Burton said she thinks there needs to be a focus on density throughout all of Lawrence, especially the northern and eastern parts of the city. That’s a message she also shared at forums ahead of the August primary election.

Both of those questions were given to candidates to prepare an answer to in advance of Wednesday’s forum, but they did answer two questions from the audience related to possible growth due to the $4 billion Panasonic battery plant coming to nearby De Soto and the city’s Pallet Shelter Village project.

Candidates were asked how prepared they believe the city is for any residual growth that comes from the Panasonic plant. Answers varied, but Burton said she believed the city wasn’t prepared at all.

“Sometimes people wait until the flood comes before they start doing anything about it,” Burton said. “I would think right now, at this point, we should start now — or yesterday — looking at ways that when people come, that we already have those houses in place, or looking at the schools and stuff that are in place here in Lawrence as well.”

Others, like Dever, said they thought the city was prepared from an industrial use standpoint but not in terms of residential capacity. Shipley and Finkeldei both mentioned the importance of Lawrence putting a focus on industrial capacity to prepare for that growth, with Finkeldei saying the city should actually be preparing for the next big industrial project that comes to the area looking to support the Panasonic facility.

Stumblingbear’s focus was on the size of the footprint of any residual business that comes into the community to support production at the plant, which he said isn’t likely to be massive. He said that doesn’t mean the city can’t capitalize on that, but that won’t happen overnight.

“We’re slowly building our (residential) housing stock, and again, it’s not going to be an overnight solution,” Stumblingbear said. “I think we are taking advantage, we are optimizing it and we will continue to do that going forward with the change to our Land Development Code.”

The question about the Pallet Shelter Village concerned whether candidates feel the city is making a wise investment at the site; as the Journal-World has reported, the cost of that temporary shelter site set to feature 50 prefabricated 64-square-foot cabins for people experiencing homelessness has ballooned to nearly $2.5 million between the cost to purchase the structures and the land where they’ll be located on North Michigan Street and contracts to install utility services on the site.

The two incumbent commissioners, Finkeldei and Shipley, have both previously voted in favor of that spending, and they both said Wednesday that it’s part of a larger plan to invest in emergency housing.

“With respect, previous to now in our plans and our commitment to this community to take greater responsibility and leadership role in solving some of these issues, our policy was to give the (Lawrence Community Shelter) $200,000 and call it good,” Shipley said. “That didn’t work. It doesn’t work. What we’re doing now is filling the gaps and finding where the overlap is.”

Dever said while he agrees that the city needs something like the Pallet Shelter Village to help it address the homelessness crisis, he thinks there was plenty of land the city already owned that could’ve made for a better location for the shelter site. He said choosing to locate it where it is will result in “costs beyond construction” for people who live in the surrounding Pinkney Neighborhood.

Stumblingbear said that while there’s always an initial cost to develop a project like this, the structures and the land they will eventually be located on are assets that can be repurposed in the future.

Burton asked moderators what the project entailed, and said, after learning more, that she didn’t think it was a good idea.

Wednesday’s forum was one of several upcoming events giving City Commission candidates an opportunity to share their visions for Lawrence. A public forum is scheduled at the Lawrence Public Library, 707 Vermont St., at 6 p.m. Monday, Oct. 2, in partnership with the League of Women Voters of Lawrence. A joint City Commission and Lawrence school board forum will take place later that week on Saturday, Oct. 7, at 1:15 p.m. at the Lied Center Pavilion, 1600 Stewart Drive, hosted by Lawrence’s NAACP branch, Black:30 and Loud Light.

The deadline to register to vote in the general election is Tuesday, Oct. 17, and advance voting by mail or in person at the Douglas County Elections Office, 711 W. 23rd St., begins the following day.


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