Happiness has been a fleeting thing for the residents of Shawnee’s Bell Road.
One moment, they learned that the Shawnee Landing shopping center they were fighting fizzled as developers pulled the plug. The next, they realized that the controversial sewer project that goes with it is going ahead anyway, likely ripping up hundreds of mature trees in their wooded neighborhood.
“It just defies logic to me,” said Joni Johnson-Godsy, one of the Bell Road neighbors living closest to the development site. Without an immediate development in play, she said, “the sewer could sit for years. It makes no sense.”
When developers SMPW Fund I announced recently they were dropping a plan for a $56.3 million shopping center at the southwest corner of Shawnee Mission Parkway and Maurer Road, it appeared the Bell Road residents had won a victory.
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Godsy called it a “miracle.”
“Were we rejoicing? Yeah!” said Godsy, an artist who has drawn an international following on her Facebook page as she chronicles the comings and goings of wildlife.
The happiness was short-lived, however. County officials say they will build the sewer anyway. The city of Shawnee has already paid $115,000, which is its estimated share of the cost of construction. A lawsuit filed by Bell Road neighbors to stop the sewer project will go forward as planned.
Shawnee has for years been keen to get that particular corner developed. The area already has busy shopping centers on the other corners, but the southwest corner has remained undeveloped primarily because the hilly terrain makes development an expensive proposition.
Bell Road residents aren’t directly in the path of future earth-moving equipment. But they are in the path of the sewer lines. Wastewater has to flow downhill in a gravity sewer system, and that meant the lines would be dug along the very ravines and rills whose beauty brought residents there in the first place.
Over the years, the city has tried more than once to get the ball rolling on a consolidated sewer system that would have served both the development and the neighborhood. Residents have to approve a consolidated district, but after it’s built, they can hook up to it. Most of them now are on septic systems. But officials never got more than 16 percent positive responses when they asked for the neighbors’ consent to build the sewer. They needed fifty-one percent.
Last year city officials believed they had a solution. They said they’d help the landowners whose property would be developed by paying their share of the cost of a contract sewer district. With a contract district, the landowners pay 10 percent of the cost of sewer construction, or $115,000, to get the sewer built. A contract district doesn’t require agreement from the Bell Road residents, and they could not connect to the sewer line later without paying substantial hook-up fees.
The neighborhood fought that idea, showing up at city and county meetings to present their case. They argued that the county wastewater department underestimated the cost of building the sewers. The rocky ground could end up costing the county twice as much as the $1.15 million it estimates it will cost to build the sewer line, neighbors said.
Instead, the county should consider non-gravity options that would reroute the sewer lines and save the woods, the neighbors said.
They also questioned the design plans of the development, in particular a 55-foot retaining wall that they said would loom over their street. Godsy, one of those closest to the proposed wall, likened it to “living right below Hoover Dam.”
The next round will likely be played out in district court. Richard and Phyllis Travers, two of the Bell Road property owners, filed suit against the sewer project in December, saying the county didn’t follow correct procedures in creating the contract district.
The fact that the developers quit the project was a bit of vindication of the neighborhood’s cost estimates on the sewer line, said Don Lysaught, a lawyer living on Bell Road who has served as a spokesman for the neighborhood. Lysaught asked the county commission recently to “take a step back” and reassess whether the project should go ahead. “I’m asking this body to reconsider where we are before spending more time and money and literally destroying a neighborhood,” he said at a recent commission meeting.
He later said he hasn’t received a response to that request.
Now that there’s no immediate development in sight, Lysaught said the sewer district does not meet the county’s criteria for a contract district. Those rules also call for a development to be imminent and preliminary development plan to be approved as a condition, he said, but without a developer, there’s no plan.
Meanwhile, Shawnee officials are optimistic other developers will come in to fill the void left by SMPW Fund I.
Andrew Nave, executive director of the Shawnee Economic Development Council, said the city has received multiple queries from other developers interested in that area. He is hopeful the city will have a new developer on board within a few weeks.
The site’s location near Interstate 435 makes it an attractive location for developers, he said. But the sewer line is crucial. “Having sewers is instrumental to this piece of ground being developed,” he said, adding that the sewer’s imminent construction was a key factor in the last developer’s decision.