Until recently, Johnson County officials thought they had the biggest uncertainties over the new courthouse figured out. Location? Check. Voter approval? Check.
They thought they were OK on parking, too, since there are some lots nearby that could be used.
But the city of Olathe’s desire to redevelop its downtown has changed that. Now county officials say they need to buy a block of homes just to the north of the courthouse site to create around 300 parking spaces that could be lost through redevelopment.
The area, known as Block 29, is bounded by Kansas Avenue, North Cherry Street, East Poplar Street and East Spruce Street. On it are 14 homes, mostly rentals and a couple of duplexes. One is vacant.
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The county commission voted 6-1 Thursday to spend $4.3 million on the buy-outs and possible condemnations on the block. Of that, $1.4 million comes from a savings account the county had set up to cover courthouse-related costs, $1.2 million from the recent sale of a county building to Olathe and the remainder from the county general fund reserves. No new taxes would be required. Commissioner Michael Ashcraft voted against.
Commissioners also voted 5-2 to authorize eminent domain proceedings should negotiations with property owners come to an impasse. Commissioners Jason Osterhaus and Ashcraft voted against.
No of the money would come from the quarter-cent sales tax increase approved by voters last fall. Officials wanted to be conservative with that money in the event a recession hits before the tax expires in 10 years, said Scott Neufeld, county budget director.
Their action came over the objections of Mary Ann Verhulst, who owns a rental property on the block. Verhulst and her husband have put thousands of dollars fixing up the house at 332 N. Kansas Ave. The historic house is 100 years old, she said.
“My husband has spent months restoring it so we could provide others with affordable housing,” she said, adding that she was surprised that parking land buy was not included in the sales tax referendum.
“The bottom line is we kind of feel like we’re being screwed,” said Verhulst, who lives in Olathe.
Building a replacement for the current courthouse at 100 N. Kansas Ave. would not immediately add people to downtown, said Assistant County Manager Joe Waters. So when county officials did parking studies, it looked like there would already be adequate space in the existing lots. In particular, the lot at the northwest corner of Kansas Avenue and Santa Fe Street, with 220 spaces, would be directly across the street from the new courthouse.
But the expected improvement to Olathe’s downtown prompted city council members to go on the offensive about redevelopment. The city had already spent millions upgrading downtown with quiet railroad crossings and streetscaping. With a new courthouse coming, the council decided to put out feelers for developers on about 6 acres of downtown property.
Block 29 has other advantages. Its location north of the courthouse will make it unnecessary for visitors to cross busy Santa Fe Street. And a section of Poplar Street that runs between the courthouse site and Block 29 could be closed to open up more space for construction staging.
It’s too early to tell whether the Olathe council’s action will result in development. But time is ticking for the county. Negotiations with property owners have already begun, but the commission’s vote allows the county to get rolling on eminent domain proceedings, if necessary. The commission was warned that a recent condemnation by Olathe took longer than expected because of scheduling issues with the landowners.
Commissioners called the new courthouse a game changer that would have a major impact on downtown Olathe. Commissioner Steve Klika said because of that, the county should work with Olathe in its plans for redevelopment.
But all on the dais expressed concern that the county come to an agreement with property owners to avoid condemnation. “I’d like to make sure (the county) treat them extremely fairly and take care of them,” said Commissioner Mike Brown.
The county has already contacted every property owner on the block and has contracts to buy three, Waters said. “About half of the properties we’re in a very good place if not agreement,” he said.
Verhulst hopes the county will take Brown’s admonishment to heart. She said the county’s appraisal of her property was significantly lower than her own appraisal, but she wants to avoid the time and cost of going to court.
“I hope they listen to the commissioner and be generous with us,” she said.