Shawnee & Lenexa

Johnson County to improve abitat for endangered snakes

Johnson County plans to spend a maximum of $85,000 to improve habitat for two types of endangered snakes so that construction can go ahead on a long-delayed sewer project in Shawnee.

County Manager Hannes Zacharias told the Johnson County Commission that he was about to sign off on an agreement in which the county would improve habitat in its parkland to accommodate the red belly and smooth earth snakes — two species that spend most of their time underground.

The agreement paves the way for a development in southwestern Shawnee that has been on hold since the county first learned of the endangered snakes in 2007. Because the new sewer would have disturbed the snakes’ habitat, the state required the county to come up with a mitigation plan.

The $85,000 figure is a maximum and would be used to get rid of bush honeysuckle and other invasive plants that hinder growth of oak and hickory trees, which the snakes prefer, said Parks and Recreation Director Michael Meadors. Part of the money also would pay for staff time or the hiring of an expert to check things over, he said.

The amount the county will spend is considerably less than previous estimates of $250,000 to $1.4 million. In September, the commission agreed to substitute other park land — with improvements — for the snake habitat. But some commissioners were still upset.

Commissioner Jason Osterhaus called the agreement “a mess,” and Michael Ashcraft referred to the “hostage takers” in the state.

However, Commissioner Steve Klika said people in his district would be happy to have the matter resolved. “I do have quite a few folks extremely focused on this issue,” he said.