Johnson County officials have taken a residential block north of downtown so the new courthouse can have a parking lot nearby. One property owner, Joe Vader, wants to save trees on the lot. One of them may have been planted during the Civil War. Dave Helling The Kansas City Star
Johnson County officials have taken a residential block north of downtown so the new courthouse can have a parking lot nearby. One property owner, Joe Vader, wants to save trees on the lot. One of them may have been planted during the Civil War. Dave Helling The Kansas City Star

Dave Helling

This Olathe neighborhood isn’t paradise, but Johnson County is paving it to put up a parking lot

By Dave Helling

dhelling@kcstar.com

August 12, 2017 2:30 PM

A rugged, gnarly, ancient tree — an Osage orange — grows proudly near the intersection of North Cherry and East Poplar streets in Olathe in the middle of a block of aging homes north of downtown.

Joe Vader, 79, thinks the tree might be more than 150 years old. “The wood is the hardest of any tree there is,” he says. “It was here during the time of much traffic on the Santa Fe Trail.”

The wagons that passed this way are lost to history, of course.

The Osage orange now faces a similar fate.

The tree sits across the street from the site of the new $182 million Johnson County courthouse. Recently, the county’s leaders decided they needed the block where the tree grows for parking.

There are also 14 homes in this neighborhood, some in good repair, others not so much. The sidewalks are uneven. Weeds have sprouted.

It isn’t paradise. But yes: They’re paving it to put up a parking lot.

Property owners learned in June their homes would have to go. “We want the keys to your property by October first,” the county told Mary Ann Verhulst.

She and other property owners and tenants were surprised. No one had talked about seizing their land for parking when the courthouse project went to voters last year.

Quite the opposite: Courthouse boosters said parking wouldn’t be an issue.

Not so, apparently. The City of Olathe rethought its plans for downtown development, forcing the county to look elsewhere for a parking lot. They found a spot at Cherry and Poplar.

Property owners resisted. “We kind of feel like we’re being screwed,” Verhulst told county commissioners.

But they never really stood a chance of saving their homes. County officials held two high cards: eminent domain, which allows a public body to take private land, and lots of cash. There was $4.3 million sloshing around, collected from taxpayers and a building sale.

That money could easily be spread among property owners on the block, and it was. Condemnation wasn’t needed.

“Everyone … preferred a negotiating process,” County Commission Chairman Ed Eilert said last week.

It’s an old Johnson County story: an extravagant building project, a vague threat of big government coercion, but in the end enough cash to slather on the process to avoid serious dissent.

In Johnson County, money is rarely an object. The property owners took their deals.

Except for Joe Vader.

Joe doesn’t think the county is paying him enough for the properties he owns on the block. Sure, the homes need a little paint. And some mortar. And some wood rot repair.

But he can fix them up, he says, into nice offices right across the street from a new courthouse.

The county, he says, needs to up its offer.

Or it can make a deal.

Vader says he’s willing to accept a lesser offer for his properties if Johnson County promises to save several trees on the block, including the Osage orange that may have shaded west-bound homesteaders after the Civil War.

“That tree is as old as this community,” he says. “It really should be saved.”

How about it, Ed Eilert?

“Those (trees) that can be saved would be,” Eilert said.

“I haven’t looked at them personally.”

Never miss a local story.

Sign up today for a free 30 day free trial of unlimited digital access.