The old Miller property in Stilwell — long a place where neighborhood kids have practiced their batting and fielding — may keep its baseball use, the Johnson County Commission has ruled.
After a two-hour hearing and over objections from nearby neighbors, the commission unanimously granted a five-year conditional use permit to baseball coach Luke Town to set up his Advanced Baseball Academy on about 20 acres near 191st Street and Nall Avenue.
“This is one of those challenging issues that you wish Solomon was in the room,” said commission Chairman Ed Eilert as the public hearing closed.
The property — which has a baseball diamond, infield practice field and batting tunnels — has been in the Michael Miller family since 2000 and has been a place where casual practices with friends and neighbors have taken place for 17 years. As they prepared to sell the land, the Millers said they wanted to see the baseball continue.
Town, who currently coaches at 7380 W. 162th St., plans to expand the baseball offerings by adding a second diamond, a 24,000-square-foot building for indoor training, plus offices and classrooms.
But neighbors were adamantly opposed, saying the expansion would put more cars on a gravel road, endanger youths who wander onto adjacent property and spoil the peace and quiet of a rural neighborhood. They filed a valid protest petition, and 13 of the neighbors filed suit in Johnson County District Court to stop the baseball practices.
The suit is still pending and asks for unspecified damages, saying the neighbors will be subjected to foul language and that youths may urinate on the property because of the lack of toilets.
The permit was twice given a thumbs down by the Aubry-Oxford Consolidated Zoning Board, although county staff recommended its approval.
Twenty-two neighbors spoke at the commission meeting Thursday, nearly evenly divided pro and con. The opponents and their lawyer, Aaron March, brought in consultants who said the ball field would bring down property values, the roads and parking would be insufficient and the use did not conform to the county’s comprehensive plan, which favors keeping the rural character of area.
Many said they enjoy walking or riding on the roads in the evenings, but feared the traffic and dust would drive them inside. Others mentioned the “tink, tink, tink” of baseballs against metal bats, although supporters countered that batting would be inside once the building is put up.
There were other objections as well. Tom Scanlon, lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, said he’s seen some youths go off ball field property and onto his property, which has a pond and a blind for turkey hunting. The lack of an adequate fence endangers them, he said.
“There are 13-, 14-, 15-year-old kids from all over the city who have never seen a pond, never seen a turkey blind. They were coming within the danger zone of the turkey blind,” he said, adding that other people in the neighborhoods shoot and hunt regularly.
“Do we really want to put a baseball academy in an area where a round from an AR-7 – not intentionally – is shot and missed a target and hit these kids?” he said.
Other speakers took issue with that.
“This is not city folk ruining the country,” said Derek Nolen of Leawood, who has a son in Town’s baseball program. “This is people in the community using the land as permitted.”
Other speakers in favor said the academy places as much emphasis on character building and respect as it does in baseball technique. The practices are strictly structured to the point that students don’t have time to leave the facilities, they said.
They also noted that the zoning allows other uses without a permit that are less attractive.
The overhead power lines and nearby railroad tracks make it unlikely that someone would want to come in and build a high-end home, said Dave Boles of Louisburg.
“This is zoned for a hog farm. You could do a hell of a lot worse than having a quality organization next to you doing good things,” he said.
The commission ultimately voted for the permit, but limited it to five years rather than the 10 that had been requested. The number of athletes on the property at any given time is limited, no lights or loudspeakers are allowed, and the final development plan will be reviewed by the full commission.
Commissioner Steve Klika said the vote guarantees some of his constituents will be unhappy. But it’s important to get behind wholesome activities for kids, he said.
Land use disputes on the border of urban and rural Johnson County have cropped up at the commission with increasing regularity the past couple of years. In the past year, the commission has listened to objections over the ball field, rodeo bulls and cattle and an events venue. Another dispute over a winery and pumpkin patch has continued for over three years.