Planning Commission Advances Rezoning Proposal

TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - The Shawnee Co. Planning Commission voted 7-0 Monday night, to get the ball rolling on what's described as an unprecedented rezoning project.

Go Topeka's past chairman Lucky DeFries briefed Shawnee County Commissioners Monday morning on why the economic development group feels a massive rezoning plan for south Topeka is crucial for future growth. Commissioners had few questions, but did urge caution in not advancing too quickly with a project so large in scope.

The plan targets 4,135 acres in what's called the South Topeka Economic Growth Corridor, from I-470 to SW 93rd, and Burlingame Road west to Forbes Field. It's already home to Bimbo Bakeries, and distribution centers for Home Depot and Target. Mars Chocolate is building its new factory there.

DeFries says the area has evolved over the past several decades and, with recent growth, it's evident that it's attractive for new businesses. It has access to highway, rail and air transportation. However, he says, many prospects have inquired about the status of zoning in the area.

The plan calls for 113 properties in the area to be rezoned for commercial and light industrial use. DeFries says the idea is to give prospective businesses some predictability about what might happen around them, as many do not want to be near dense residential areas, such as a subdivision.

Planners say 38 residences fall within the area. Those and other existing properties would be grandfathered in to maintain their current use.

However, two residents of the proposed zoning area expressed concerns to county commissioners during their meeting. Dale Carls owns 550 acres in the included area which he says he uses for pasture and farm land. He says he wants to continue that use and pass it onto a fourth generation of his family. He says hearing that is a provision of the plan was reassuring.

However, Michael Bradley still wasn't convinced. He lives in the Montara neighborhood, which would not be rezoned, but would be surrounded by the project. He says it would make Montara "a residential desert" and he says he was concerned such a change would make the businesses along S. Topeka Blvd. which do cater to residential customers less likely to remain in business.

Project supporters say they want to be sensitive to existing property owners. They plan a series of open houses in addition to required public hearings.

As for whether this means Go Topeka plans to drop a chunk of economic development sales tax money to buy up all the rezoned propert, DeFries says the process won't change. He says JEDO, the Joint Economic Development Organization, already has purchased or has options to purchase about 600 acres in the area. Any further purchases would have to be considered and voted on by JEDO.

Commissioner Ted Ensley, who represents the area included in the proposal, says the process should advance cautiously and officials should be very open with the public as it moves along. He says a project of this large scope has rarely, if ever, been attempted in the county. He says he didn't want to see it become a "hurry up" situation and questioned DeFries if its approval was time-sensitive.

DeFries says the timing is a matter of preparing for the future and being proactive about development. He also said the present boundaries of the plan were a starting point which could change as discussions move forward. He says Go Topeka wants people to have every opportunity to give input on the proposal.

Commission chairperson Shelly Buhler echoed Ensley's comments about proceeding with caution and openness.

Public hearings will be held February 13th, 20th and 22nd at Washburn Rural Middle School. Open houses for landowners in the vicinity would take place at Washburn Rural High School in late January and early February.

The Planning Commission would vote whether to recommend the project sometime after the final public hearing, with the Commissioners then voting to approve or disapprove the plan, likely at a meeting in early March.


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