County explores options for recouping CR1 funding
By Joel Walsh
Leavenworth County commissioners are exploring options for recovering the county's funding share for improving a 6-mile stretch of County Road 1, the access road leading to a proposed interchange with the Kansas Turnpike.
Indications from a meeting Monday are the county will look to recover funds from future developers in the area, which runs from U.S. Highway 24-40 to Kansas Highway 32, west and south of Tonganoxie.
"The county has a very unique opportunity being presented to it," County Counselor David Van Parys told commissioners Monday. "We have almost a blank palette to craft and develop the maximum value for the taxpayers and those directly impacted by this -- the landowners -- and I think we have an opportunity to really hit a long ball on this."
Pete Heaven, a land-use attorney with Lathrop and Gage of Overland Park, told commissioners several options existed for the county to recoup its $8 million commitment to the project, without unduly affecting current property owners.
Heaven recommended use of a benefit district to "not only recoup the expenditure but also create a huge tax base for the county that will survive for many years to come."
Heaven envisioned a commercial and industrial center similar to that along Metcalf Avenue in Johnson County -- one whose infrastructure costs could be charged back to future property owners.
Commissioners J.C. Tellefson and Clyde Graeber were open to hearing about commercial and industrial development in the area, but both expressed concern over whether current landowners would see a hike in their property taxes as well.
Dozens of residents have protested improvements to County Road 1, citing concerns regarding the safety of the road, the true cost of the project, its general necessity and the change in the rural nature of the area throughout the process.
But Heaven said there were "a variety of tools" the county could use to ensure existing landowners would not face an increased property tax burden with nearby development.
One such method would be agricultural deferment, where, essentially, an assessment could still be placed on the property, but a landowner's payment would be abated until the property was sold or modified from its current land use.
According to Heaven, a landowner not interested in selling his property could keep deferring payment indefinitely until the county would have to pick up that part of the investment.
"(Agricultural deferment) gives homeowners the ability to have no change in their day-to-day life, but if they decide to sell, it would be for a huge profit," Heaven said.
"I just don't want to have anybody forced to have to sell their home," Tellefson said, insisting that some type of protection should be added to keep tax rates low for affected residents if possible.
Graeber agreed but wondered if that was possible since the Kansas Constitution calls for "uniform, equal and fair market taxation."
Heaven assured the commission other options existed too, however, including creating an additional sales tax aimed solely at developers to pay for transportation improvements.
"The beauty is, if we're all wrong and (County Road 1) doesn't develop, no one is hurt. If we're right, (the county) gets its money back, you've got a good road and you've got economic development like you've never seen before," Heaven said, adding that "it would be expensive for the county if development didn't occur, but I don't think that's a real option."
Ultimately the board approved a motion, 3-0, to continue a relationship with Lathrop and Gage and discussed sending out requests for proposals for a planning and an engineering consultant to aid the county in the undertaking.
Heaven and Van Parys said the next step for the county was to determine the specific scope of the project and to consider beginning work on sewer systems along the access corridor.
Overall Leavenworth County has committed $8 million to the County Road 1 project, with $2 million more coming from the Kansas Turnpike Authority.
It is yet to be determined how the remaining $2.96 million needed for the project will be supplied.
Commissioner Dean Oroke said a $1 million commitment from the city of Tonganoxie or from the federal government has not been ruled out and added that the original cost estimate for the project was "in 2009 dollars" and included around "$1.78 million in inflation."