County, Kessinger/Hunter to play ball
Commissioners designate Kansas City company potential Sunflower developer
Despite pleas from speakers at a public hearing and two fellow commissioners that it slow down, the Johnson County commissioners agreed to move forward with negotiations to transfer the Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant to Kessinger/Hunter and Co.
Johnson County has been negotiating Sunflower's purchase since May 2003. From the start, county officials hoped to pass on responsibility for the plant's clean-up and redevelopment by immediately reselling it to a developer.
As expected last Thursday, the Johnson County Commission tentatively placed Kessinger/
Hunter in that role, at least for the next 11 months. On a 5-2 vote, commissioners designated the Kansas City real estate firm the plant's "potential developer" and agreed not to negotiate with any other private developer for the remainder of the year.
The arrangement didn't mean the county and the company were now teammates in Sunflower's development, said County Commission Chair-woman Annabeth Surbaugh and County Counselor Don Jarrett, explaining that tough negotiations remained before a hoped-for closing on the property late this year.
"Far from this finally concluding things, this is more like kicking off the football game," Jarrett said.
But even as the county lined up to kickoff negotiations, it was clear other players remained in the game.
Attorney Scott Beeler, an attorney for the Shawnee Tribe, reminded commissioners his client's claim for Sunflower was before a U.S. District Court judge in Kansas City, Kan. He said the tribe wasn't moving forward with Sunflower development plans until the case was decided, although it was confident in winning.
Beeler advised commissioners they should exercise the same prudence.
"While on the chance that the United States District Court says that the Shawnee Tribe's rights do matter, who is going to answer for all of the time, money and effort -- and especially taxpayer dollars -- spent to pursue development proposals, which are not grounded on any factual reality or right?" he asked.
In response, County Counselor Don Jarrett said the county was following prudently preparing for the federal government prevailing in the case.
Another key player in any transfer is Gov. Kathleen Sebelius. Federal legislation making complete transfers of installations like Sunflower possible before all environmental remediation is completed requires a state governor to sign a document called finding of suitabiity of early transfer.
"A substantial portion of the Sunflower site should be devoted to a life sciences research park," she wrote. "This issue will be central to my approval of a final FOSET. I recommend that you commence discussions with the University of Kansas and any other interested parties as soon as possible to develop these plans."
The FOSET gave significant power to a "slender" woman who doesn't live in Johnson County, Commissioner Doug Wood said. But he added that strength should be tempered by a developer's ability to make a research park financially viable.
Jarrett and Surbaugh said the governor's demand was compatible with the county's Community in a Park land use master plan that set aside acres for a research park. Surbaugh added that Kessinger/Hunter, too, welcomed a research park.
The common theme of those who spoke at the public hearing was that the county was hasty in designating Kessinger/Hunter the sole potential developer of Sunflower.
Commissioners hadn't produced a convincing justification that such a decision was needed now, said Micheline Burger, president of Taxpayers Offering Tomorrow's Opportunity Inc. No developer should be named before the planned review of the Sunflower land-use master plan was completed, she argued. To do otherwise would give Kessinger/Hunter too much influence to change the land use plan to suit its needs, she said.
Moreover, Burger said the Commission's process in narrowing the field to Kessinger/Hunter was flawed because it didn't allow adequate public comment or oversight, she said.
Gifford Knapp of De Soto, a member of the Sunflower Restoration Advisory Board, said the Army should be required to clean up Sunflower and that it should then be opened to public uses. The Army fully intended to seek funds to continue the program of burning buildings at Sunflower, he said, taking exception to Wood's past comments that the county needed to name a developer to convince Congress to make that money available.
The argument for more time found favor with Commissioners Ed Peterson and John Toplikar, who represents De Soto. Their motion that a redevelopment authority be named to held select a developer failed 2-5.
In his 20-minute near point-by-point rebuke of those who spoke out against the Kessinger/Hunter arrangement, Wood said some of those opposed to moving forward wanted nothing to happen at Sunflower because they feared change. The county needed to move forward or risk the federal government selling the plant off piecemeal. That would make it difficult to control land uses.
Both he and Surbaugh said that far from taking hasty action, the Commission was making a decision based on 11 years of experience. The county developed the master plan in response to the Army decision to mothball Sunflower as surplus property in 1997, Surbaugh said. Commissioners studied the issues thoroughly during the three years the failed Oz Entertainment Co. proposal was before them. Finally, she pointed out the Kessinger/Hunter plan first surfaced in May 2001.
In a statement released the afternoon of the decision, Kessinger/Hunter principle Charles Hunter called the Commission's decision a milestone in the effort to remediate Sunflower and develop it to its highest and best uses.
"This endeavor will return the property to the tax rolls and provide housing and employment opportunities, as well as additional park lands, for the residents of Johnson County now and for generations to come," he said. "While this is a big step, there remains a great deal of hard work, planning, coordination, and execution of a plan and vision in accordance with the County's master plan. In conjunction with federal, state and local government officials, our team will now move forward with fine-tuning the details of our plan for transfer of the property, including the remediation integral to fulfillment of that process."
One of the county's demands in the coming talks, Jarrett and Surbaugh agreed, was that Kessinger/Hunter honor all proposed public benefit transfers approved by various federal agencies. At Toplikar's insistence, two of those applications -- the city of De Soto's application for the Sunflower water department and the county's application for 2,000 acres of parkland -- were read into the record.
With the decision on a developer made, the Commission agreed to create a Sunflower Redevelop-ment Authority. It was the position of the majority of the Commission that such a body couldn't be formed until it was decided what its function would be.
Commissioners have said they saw the role of the authority as a "super-zoning board." The most important of its functions would be consideration of the Kessinger/Hunter's redevelopment plan for Sunflower for a recommendation to the Commission.