Sewer district for planned shopping center divides residents along Shawnee’s Bell Road

08/12/2014 3:00 PM

08/12/2014 3:00 PM

Call it the Battle of Bell Road.

To the north, seven property owners want to get a sewer system for a shopping center the city has been trying to develop since 2004.

To the south, residents say those sewer lines will slash through the forested, rocky hillside that attracted them to the area in the first place.

Collateral damage, they fear, will be the beauty, some internationally famous wildlife with Facebook fans and perhaps the environmentally threatened smooth earth snake.

The latest chapter in what has been a years-long struggle is unfolding now before the Johnson County Commission. The city of Shawnee, over strenuous objections from Bell Road residents, asked the commission to approve a 25-acre sewer district that would serve the yet-to-be-developed southwest corner of Shawnee Mission Parkway and Maurer Road.

On the table was a contract district, meaning developers would pay 10 percent of the estimated $1.1 million cost of the line. But in this case, Shawnee has agreed to pay that $115,000 for the developers. That is the first time any Johnson County city has taken such a step.

The problem: That sewer line would run downhill, away from the shopping center and parallel to Bell Road and its creek.

Residents along Bell Road are digging in for a fight. More than 20 of them went to the commission’s public hearing on the matter to voice their opposition. Commissioners decided to delay action until November so they can seek more information.

Bell Road is a narrow, roughly asphalted lane with no curbs and gutters. It climbs from its base at Midland Drive through what was once a rock quarry to dead-end just south and west of where the shopping center would be. On either side are long-established homes on large lots, many of them set far back from the street by twisting driveways.

“One of the reasons this has not been developed is because it would be very expensive to develop because of the rock,” said Joni Johnson-Godsy, who lives at the end of the road closest to the proposed development.

In fact, the cost of the sewer line has been one of the main points the Bell Road residents brought up to the commission. Jodel Wickham, vice president of the aftermarket division of the engineering firm Smith and Loveless and also a resident of Bell Road, cast doubts on the county’s estimate that the line could be laid for $1.1 million. Stream crossings and the clearing of some 15 acres of trees, plus the rocky ground could double that cost, she said.

If that happens, Shawnee would have to pay more than the $115,000 to meet its 10 percent obligation.

For Johnson-Godsy, though, the issue is bigger than dollars and cents. The sewer line, she fears, will put an end to the many sightings of wild animals that she’s come to regard as old friends.

Johnson-Godsy is an artist and wildlife photographer. Because animals this close to the city are less skittish about people, she said she’s been able to build a relationship of trust with some of them. Images of them, taken from her backyard, have been on jigsaw puzzles, home décor items, posters and yard flags sold throughout North America and Europe, she said.

“They’ve let me into their world,” she said.

The animals are not anonymous. After seeing the same ones over and over, Johnson-Godsy and her husband started making up names for them. She posted her observations on Facebook. Now close to 1,000 people keep track of the doings of Dodger, Spinner, Spike and Mrs. Aflack and mourn the recent loss of Torch.

Johnson-Godsy said she even has photos of a smooth earth snake in the area. The smooth earth snake, rated by Kansas as “threatened,” was one of two species that delayed another Shawnee sewer district until recently. Johnson-Godsy said she is considering a call to nature conservancy groups for support.

The city of Shawnee has tried since at least 2004 to get the corner developed. With a Target on one corner and a Home Depot on another, the southwest corner of Shawnee Mission Parkway and Maurer Road is the last piece of the intersection to be developed.

The city approved a site plan for a Best Buy store at the site in 2007, but the idea fell through when only 9 percent of property owners in the proposed consolidated sewer district said they’d go along. Fifty-one percent support was needed.

The city tried again in March of this year. This time 16 percent of residents supported it.

After that, the city decided to ask for a contract district. With a contract district, developers (or in this case the city) front part of the cost and residents can’t hook up to the lines without paying. The city’s payment came from its economic development fund. Some officials have mentioned the possibility of a Tax Increment Financing district to recoup the city’s cost.

The Shawnee City Council approved the contract district June 23. But residents at the county commission meeting complained that they were given very little notice it would be up for discussion.

City Manager Carol Gonzales acknowledged that it was short notice — cards were sent out midweek before the Monday meeting. But she said the possibility was raised at the March meeting and that officials wanted to get a chance to discuss it before July. The council canceled one of its July meetings.

The city has been eager to get more retail off the ground, and the corner is a premier location because of the traffic counts, road access and synergy with business that has located on the other corners, Gonzales said. It has long been a city goal to increase the proportion of commercial development to residential, she told the county commission.

“It’s one of three prime areas in town and we want to get it ready,” she said in a later interview.

Bell Road residents are not against development per se, said Don Lysaught, another resident of the street and attorney who presented the main case to the commission. “The people here today are not a bunch of crazies,” he said. “We’re concerned and part of that concern has been fostered by the fact that we feel like we’ve been kept in the dark throughout this entire project.”

Most Bell Road residents accept that the corner should have commercial development, Lysaught said. But they asked that the county consider some alternatives to the lines going through their neighborhood. For example, the county could use a pump, rather than gravity system, to push the flow eastward. Or it could investigate on-site water reclamation like that designed by Bio-Microbics of Shawnee.

Gonzales said the city is open to alternatives and has asked the county wastewater department for some. “We feel like they’ve explored it,” she said of the county, and gravity sewers came out as the best answer.

Steve Beaumont, owner of some of the property to be developed, expressed skepticism to the commission about the alternatives. “If we could have a shopping center for a $200,000 septic system — which is something I’ve not heard of — super! Let’s do it. Let’s recycle the water and drink the water that just came out of the urinal thirty minutes ago. OK,” he said.

Time is ticking on developer interest, he said. Beaumont warned that potential tenants are already scouting other locations in Kansas City, Kan. “The fuse is not infinite here,” he said.

“We are losing tax dollars. There’s a tax bleed from Shawnee to Kansas City, Kansas,every single day,” said Beaumont.

Likewise, time is ticking for beautiful and wild places in Shawnee, said Johnson-Godsy. “There aren’t a lot of places like this left in the city,” she said.

“It’s a David and Goliath situation. Here we are just minding our own business and wanting to be left alone,” she said.

City officials are not seeing the whole picture when they talk about importance of raising the proportion of commercial to residential property, she said. “We’re under constant assault by a city bureaucracy that only wants to move the needle on a dial.”

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