Plans for indoor driving range at county golf course come unraveled; questions about K-10 growth emerge
photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World photo
At one point, this looked like a gimme — you know, the type of short, easy putt that you are not even required to tap in. A 30-year old golf course between Eudora and Lawrence wanted to add an indoor-outdoor driving range and a small restaurant to make the aging course more viable for the future.
The facility, Twin Oaks Golf, is located at the interchange of Kansas Highway 10 and County Route 1057, meaning it already is on a major roadway. Another selling point for the project seemingly was that the course had been in existence since 1991, without any significant record of complaints from neighbors or others.
The city of Eudora, which is less than three miles east of the course, had sent a letter to the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission urging support for a rezoning request that is needed for the course upgrades. The professional planning staff for the Planning Commission also recommended approval of the rezoning.
“It just seemed like such a win-win opportunity with all the support we had,” said Jeff Burey, managing partner of Twin Oaks, 1326 East 1900 Road. “I was very optimistic.”
But then, Burey learned something that many of you already knew — there are no gimmes in Douglas County.
The Planning Commission on Monday evening failed to approve the rezoning request. Instead it tabled the request for further study. The next morning, the proposed buyer for Twin Oaks called Burey and canceled the contract to buy the property. Now, Burey says the future of the pitch-and-putt course — which has carved out a niche as the center for youth golf in Douglas County — is “real clouded.”
“I’m a strategic planner, and I’m thinking about what the next step can be, and I’m praying about it,” Burey said. “But to operate it as it is now and not make any improvements will be very difficult.”
I wouldn’t consider the deal entirely dead, though. The group that had planned to buy the property is led by longtime Lawrence-area golf pro Randy Towner. He told me Wednesday afternoon that he indeed canceled the contract to buy Twin Oaks. He said there was a key July 1 date in that contract, and Monday night’s action by the Planning Commission made it clear the project wasn’t going to have needed approvals by then.
Towner, however, also said he was still actively looking at the project. But he stopped short of predicting the odds of his group moving forward on the deal.
“We had some time and effort in it, and obviously are disappointed by the decision,” Towner said. “But we are still working on the project. We’re open to whatever.”
You may remember that I reported in March on plans being filed for the project. The plans included a new 50-by-150-foot building that would house covered bays for a new high-tech driving range. It also would include room for a small restaurant to serve golfers at the facility.
The weather-protected driving range bays would give the course a major infusion of revenue by allowing the business to be open year-round. The facility also would feature a computerized practice and gaming system that would track the shots of golfers and allow for all types of unique competitions.
In some ways, the facility would be similar to the Top Golf businesses that have sprung up around the country. Technically, Towner’s group could construct the golf building without getting new zoning for the property. But since the plans call for a restaurant component, a rezoning is required. Towner said moving forward without the restaurant would be problematic. He noted that food and beverage sales are an important part of the business model at places like Top Golf, for instance.
“Golf is such a social sport,” Towner said. “I feel we need a food and beverage component to make it really successful.”
So, what stopped the project from winning approval? In short, Douglas County’s perpetual concern about losing valuable agricultural land. The property at one time was farm ground, and it is next to quality farm fields today. However, the professional planning staff noted the property hasn’t produced any crops for at least 30 years, and the project would not require expansion onto any of the adjacent farm fields. Thus, the planning staff determined the project wasn’t in violation of any goals related to preserving prime agricultural property.
Not all commissioners agreed. But it seemed like the larger objection was slightly different. Commissioners were concerned that if they granted the request for this property to be rezoned to a general business category, then there eventually would be requests by other properties in the area for the same type of zoning designation. Planning Commissioner Gregory Shanklin called it the “slippery slope theory.”
“One use leads to another and ultimately you do end up losing agricultural inventory,” Shanklin said.
Several commissioners said they were not opposed to the actual use that Towner and his group proposed — a driving range and restaurant concept — but did share Shanklin’s concerns about what would come next.
“There is not even an implicit objection to the services you are proposing to provide,” Planning Commission Chair David Carttar told the group. “It is the implication that this zoning goes with the land, and you have created an anchor, a seed for other commercial development that would eat into agricultural land.”
Burey said he doesn’t have a timeline for determining what to do with the business, but he said whether it can continue is an active consideration. He noted that he is 71 years old and his other original business partners have died, and their shares are now held by their heirs. But the business remains open currently and is in a busy part of its youth golf season. Burey said seven area high schools use the course for their golf programs. The course also is the site of the Douglas County chapter of the First Tee program, a national initiative to get young people into golf.
“If this place weren’t here, there would be hundreds of families affected,” Burey said. “It is a way of life for them now. They come with their kids for First Tee. The parents come and watch and make friends. Good stuff happens here.”
This project probably will get strong public interest for that reason. There are a lot of families that have grown attached to the facility. Full disclosure: My daughter plays on a high school golf team that uses the facility, although I suspect her team will survive regardless of the future of Twin Oaks.
My interest in the project stems more from a larger issue that goes beyond golf. Mark my words: This project will become a new touchpoint in the debate about whether Douglas County is adequately friendly to business, and also whether it is overly obsessed with preserving agricultural land.
The key comment on that front came from Commissioner Shanklin. He indicated that he didn’t think any property along K-10 Highway was suitable for a general business zoning designation.
“A driving range sounds fine, a snack bar sounds fine, but I don’t really like the idea of anything along K-10 being characterized as general business,” Shanklin said.
Think about that for a second: K-10 is one of the busiest roads in the county, and it is linked to the most prosperous county in the state, Johnson. Is Douglas County’s official planning position really that there are no locations along that freeway suitable for commercial uses?
Shanklin is just one voice on the commission. And, it is worth remembering that the planning staff did recommend approval, noting that its location at an interchange on a freeway made it a logical site for future business development.
But it was noteworthy how other planning commissioners didn’t really pause at Shanklin’s comment. Maybe that is the will of the people. Protecting open space has a lot of supporters.
It is no gimme that Douglas County is going to grow, even along a busy freeway. Fully understanding the implications of that idea is why this project is about more than golf.