Every week for months, south Johnson County residents have testified at Johnson County Commission meetings in opposition to a proposed cold storage facility at New Century AirCenter in Olathe.
Eight of them also filed a lawsuit against the county, arguing the project posed a safety hazard to nearby residents, did not protect the land or environment and would harm property values. The lawsuit, which hundreds of other Johnson County residents asked to join, argued that the Commission’s approval of the development was unreasonable and illegal.
But late Wednesday, Lineage Logistics, the proposed developer, announced it was no longer pursuing the $81 million project, “due to a change in customer needs.”
A court hearing on the opponents’ lawsuit is scheduled for Nov. 9. Several plaintiffs and other residents said Thursday they thought the public pressure and lawsuit definitely had an impact. But they also said they were not backing down from the legal action until the county commissioners formally rescind their approval of the project.
“Lineage has heard the community,” Jana Walker, one of the most outspoken opponents, said Thursday. “But we need (the commissioners) to rescind their vote on the project so the lawsuit can be done with.”
Residents said Thursday that without a formal county decision, Lineage’s announcement that it is suspending construction plans wasn’t necessarily final.
“It’s really mandatory that the board of county commissioners rescind their votes and kill the project,” said plaintiff Vince Werkowitch, who lives within a mile of the AirCenter.
Lineage Logistics had proposed a 450,000-square-foot facility for cold storage of food on about 40 acres near the northwest corner of 159th and New Century Parkway.
It would have been the largest project at the air center in 10 years, on county-owned airport industrial park land targeted for economic development. The business was expected to start with 175 employees and grow to 300, but now those plans are withdrawn.
Connie Shidler, lawyer for the residents who challenged the development, said the company announcement was a partial victory for her clients, but noted that under Kansas law, citizens resort to the court when aggrieved by board actions. She said there are still legal questions to be answered by the court, so she expected the Nov. 9 hearing to go forward.
“My clients are pleased, for now, that Lineage Logistics has withdrawn its project. I trust that the Board of County Commissioners will become more transparent and responsive to the safety and other concerns of Johnson County citizens when considering future development,” Shidler said in a statement.
The Johnson County Board of County Commissioners approved the development application on July 6, despite a long list of complaints from nearby residents at the time about lighting, noise, truck congestion and water runoff. Later, safety concerns emerged.
On Thursday, the county said it was considering next steps.
“The county is waiting for written notification from Lineage Logistics indicating that the company is not planning to pursue its development,” County Communications Director Sharon Watson said in a statement.
Once that confirmation is received, the airport commission and county commission will have to consider how to proceed, based on the fact that the final development plan for Lineage is still in place, and litigation is still ongoing, Watson said.
County and company officials declined to comment about the lawsuit or the public opposition. But they characterized Lineage’s decision strictly as a business move.
Mike McClendon, executive vice president of Network Optimization at Lineage, released a statement that indicated Lineage couldn’t get sufficient customers for its proposed development. The company said it would have no further comment about the issue.
“Lineage’s approach to new construction, expansion and acquisition has long been to provide the space and solutions where and when our customers need it,” McClendon said.
“In the case of the proposed New Century facility, unforeseen changes to our customers’ supply chain and logistics needs have, for now, prompted us to withdraw our plans.”
County Commission Chair Ed Eilert said it appeared the company was not able to line up the customers it needed for the building. He said the company had asked in August for an extension in its lease negotiations with the airport commission, which was an indication of unresolved issues in its business and customer relations.
Both Shidler and some residents said Thursday that they thought the public opposition and citizen complaints made a difference to Lineage’s potential customers.
This is the second time this fall that a controversial economic development project has been canceled in the Kansas City area following resident protests. In September, Tyson halted plans for a $320 million poultry processing complex south of Tonganoxie.
But in that case, the Leavenworth County Commission had not yet approved the idea.
In the case of the Lineage Logistics and the Johnson County Commission, residents had the added burden of trying to overturn an existing approval.
The Johnson County Commission had declared its intent to grant a 10-year, 50 percent tax abatement for the project.
“It is unfortunate that it took a lawsuit and significant community outcry for their voices to be heard. Even though the BOCC was not listening — Unilever, Lineage Logistic’s largest potential customer, heard them loud and clear,” Shidler said in her statement.
“The Board of County Commissioners should rescind its vote. It ignored a valid protest petition and failed to require ordinance compliance. The commissioners need to rebuild trust. My clients and their newly formed group with hundreds of new activists will remain vigilant to prevent future abuses,” she said.
In August, eight residents filed a lawsuit arguing the project had been improperly approved. They particularly raised concerns about the potential safety hazards from the use of anhydrous ammonia to be used in the operation of the cold storage facility.
County officials responded that there were already three other facilities at the airport’s industrial park that use anhydrous ammonia as a refrigerant in their business, and those businesses have been there for decades, the first in 1979. They said there are no facilities at the AirCenter where the anhydrous ammonia is manufactured, processed, stored or distributed, and the anhydrous ammonia is used only as a component of the refrigeration system.
The county noted there are established regulations under federal law for the proper and safe use of the anhydrous ammonia.
On Thursday, Eilert lamented the potential loss of 300 jobs at the air center.
Residents countered that they hoped the air center business park would pursue more high-paying, technologically advanced employers that don’t pose a potential safety hazard or nuisance.
“Do your job and quit trying to shove this building onto the community. We don’t want it,” resident and lawsuit plaintiff Sharon Carrel testified before the Commission on Thursday. “There are certain things that are not right, and this project is not right.”
Aaron Otto, executive director to the Johnson County airport commission, said Thursday that the county will continue to aggressively market the land available for development at New Century’s business park. He said the airport hasn’t taken any county taxpayer dollars since 2006 and is self-sufficient because of the long-term land leases at the business park. So it’s imperative for the county to continue to make the most of that economic development opportunity.
“What happens now is we continue to lease or promote that there’s hundreds of acres available at New Century business park,” Otto said.