Homeowners on Shawnee’s Bell Road lost the battle against a sewer system that will destroy hundreds of trees. But they are determined to keep fighting a development that they say will ruin wildlife habitat and the wooded character of the neighborhood.
The latest battleground is Shawnee City Council, which is trying to move quickly to secure a deal to develop about 26 acres on the southwest corner of Maurer Road and Shawnee Mission Parkway.
The city was successful Thursday in getting approval from the county for a sewer line that would run along a wooded creek and was fervently opposed by Bell Road residents. Residents along the creek say they don’t oppose the development itself, but would like the city and county to consider a different route for the sewer line that serves it.
The city immediately put the development on its agenda after county approval of the sewer. Monday night the city council set a public hearing on the finance package for the development for Dec. 22 — over protests from residents that the closeness to Christmas would limit their input.
Don Lysaught, a resident of Bell Road, asked that the city push the hearing back to January, when more residents could attend and when all of the city’s studies on the finance package would be complete. He also said taxpayers should know more specifics about the development before agreeing to foot part of the bill.
“We’re rushing into this thing,” Lysaught said. “We want to know what is being proposed.”
But Curtis Petersen, who represents developer SWMP Fund I, LLC, said the prospective tenants have constraints of their own about the timing of the move.
Developers have not announced any of the tenants, and that concerned Councilman Mike Kemmling, the only council member to vote against the Dec. 22 hearing date. “It’s real generous of us to be so flexible when we don’t know what is going in there,” he said.
The proposed retail development would include a 50,000-square-foot anchor store, 100,000 square feet of retail space and seven pad sites and would be built over a three-year period ending in 2017.
Public financing includes tax increment financing plus a special sales tax district. If approved, the sales tax in the new retail area would increase by a half cent to 9.5 percent. The rate is currently 8.675 percent and will go to 9 percent April 1 because of a recent voter-supported sales tax increase. The taxing districts would put about $12 million from public funds into the $49 million project. The rest would come from private investment.
Developing the corner has been a long-held vision of city officials, who have been trying since at least 2004. The problem has always been the lack of sewers.
In 2007, plans for a Best Buy on that corner were scuttled because residents would not consent to joining a consolidated sewer district. The city asked twice over the years which residents in potential sewer district would agree to get rid of their septic systems in favor of a city sewer. Officials never got more than 16 percent yes answers. Fifty-one percent approval is needed to build a consolidated district.
After those failings, the city and developers decided to take a different tack — a contract sewer district, which does not require the homeowners’ support. The contract district only needs approval of the six property owners in the district. Residents don’t get to vote because they will not be allowed to tie in without paying. Usually the developers pay 10 percent of the cost of the line, but in this case, the city of Shawnee has taken the unusual step of agreeing to pay the estimated $115,000 for them.
The problem is that the gravity system the county wastewater department proposes must run downhill. That would mean digging a line next to a creek parallel to Bell Road. The line would tear up hundreds of trees and ruin their privacy screening from roads and the scenic beauty of their properties, residents say. Some residents were also concerned that the gravity system would come close enough to damage their existing septic systems, in which case they’d be required to pay thousands of dollars and monthly wastewater fees to join the county system.
If the sewers must be built, the homeowners have said they would rather have a pump station that would send wastewater to existing sewers in the east or even underneath Bell Road itself.
Homeowners and county wastewater officials both presented their opinions to the Johnson County Commission in a three-hour hearing Thursday.
Much of that meeting was spent debating which side had the most accurate estimates for the cost of laying the sewer pipe. The county has maintained that a gravity sewer line would cost about $1.1 million and a pump system from $2.8 million to $2.9 million, depending on where it is located. The pump system also would have more upkeep costs because it has moving parts, wastewater officials said.
Homeowners presented figures that were just the reverse. Estimates from engineering firms Kiewit and Burns & McDonnell showed the gravity system costing over $2 million and the pump system around $1.1 million. The homeowners attributed the difference to the extra costs that would be caused by the hilly, rocky topography.
Residents questioned the county’s accuracy, saying the wastewater department has in the past underestimated construction costs and then come back later for more money once the projects are under way.
“Johnson County Wastewater by its own numbers is right less than half the time,” said Lysaught. “I’m not a gambler but I don’t like those odds.”
The loss of trees and wildlife habitat was also a big reason residents objected to the gravity route. Some have bird havens and landscaping to augment the surroundings. One resident, artist Joni Johnson-Godsy, has made a study of local wildlife, writing about them on her Facebook page and putting her renderings of them on puzzles and home décor items that are sold in Europe and North America.
A split commission finally voted 4-3 in favor of the gravity system recommended by the wastewater department. Commissioners John Toplikar, Jason Osterhaus and Michael Ashcraft voted against.
Commissioner Jim Allen, former Shawnee mayor, said he supported the gravity line because it is the one that will be least burdensome to all the county ratepayers and it is being built with the capacity to handle future development in that area. “Am I real happy it’s going to take out a lot of trees? No,” he said. “We get elected to make those tough decisions.”
But other commissioners were skeptical. Toplikar asked pointedly whether the citizens of Shawnee shouldn’t have more specifics on the development, since their money is paying for the system.
And Ashcraft said county wastewater officials may be guilty of thinking inside the box. “You are fighting convention here,” he told the homeowners. “No one used the term, but Johnson County Wastewater is a monopoly. They think like a monopoly. They have a way of doing things and if you try to do an alternative outside that norm, you get a lot of resistance.”
Rather than explore one of the alternatives — an on-site bio-microbic sewer system, for example — the wastewater officials have chosen familiar plans, he said.
“So instead we’re going to overbuild capacity on the assumption that some day in the future this will be leveled and turned into apartments and shopping centers,” Ashcraft said. “I just think sitting up here, how many times in the last 50 years or last 10 years have we overbuilt capacity to the impact of thousands, millions, maybe tens of millions of dollars?”