Both Frontenac's lawsuit and Pittsburg residents' Silverback Landing concerns revolve around the city's road construction projects to entice housing developers

PITTSBURG — Over the past several months, concerned Pittsburg residents living near the planned Silverback Landing housing addition have raised a wide range of concerns about the development.

At a Pittsburg City Commission meeting in June, resident Bill Strenth spoke during the public input period, and questioned the city’s plans for assisting a developer, P&L Development, LLC, to pay for infrastructure improvements in the planned housing development, located east of Rouse Street and north of Centennial Drive in an area south of Quincy Street, with the East Hills neighborhood located directly to the north, also in the area south of Quincy.

The development agreement approved last September, at the same time as the ordinance establishing a Rural Housing Incentive District (RHID) for the Silverback Landing area, stated that the “Developer will construct, at its cost, the Internal Infrastructure Improvements in a good and workmanlike manner in accordance with the Plans and Specifications approved by City consistent with the construction of the Development Project so that the Substantial Completion of the Internal Infrastructure Improvements associated with the Development Project will be completed on or before Substantial Completion of the Development Project.”

The term “Internal Infrastructure Improvements,” in the context of the agreement, “means the streets, water, sanitary sewer, storm water, gas and electric improvements necessary for Silverback Phase 1 and located within the boundaries of the Property,” according to the document.

A funding agreement also approved last September states that public money could be used to pay for “necessary support” to the developer, but seems clear that paying for roads in the housing addition would be the developer’s responsibility. While P&L Development is paying for $980,000 of the $1.1 million cost of the first phase of road construction within Silverback Landing, however, the city is covering the additional $120,000 costs of constructing concrete roads in the development.

“Many citizens cannot understand the eagerness to use tax dollars to help the developer build his roads in Silverback Landing,” Strenth said at the June 11 city commission meeting. “There needs to be accountability of the city officials so the citizens of Pittsburg feel they are being responsible for monies to be used properly. In the RHID it states the developer is to pay for the roads inside his development. This is what the city staff and others worked on over the last year and brought for approval of the commissioners last September.”

Pittsburg’s city commissioners “should rescind their decision to use any city funds immediately,” Strenth said June 11. “Absolutely no money should be given to the developer for roads. The commission should stop and think. Was this guidance the best for the citizens of Pittsburg?”

Commissioner Chuck Munsell made a motion at the meeting “to rescind the decision to use economic development funds in the amount of $60,000 and any other city funds for roads, streets, what have you, from asphalt to concrete, in Silverback Landing.”

In addition to $60,000 from the city’s Revolving Loan Fund, the city commission in March discussed using a similar amount of money from the city’s street maintenance sales tax to “enable the City to construct concrete roads in Silverback Landing” before deciding against doing so following public input that was critical of the idea as an inappropriate use of funds. The city has since undertaken a variety of road repaving projects, notably on Broadway. Munsell’s June 11 motion died for lack of a second.

According to the funding agreement approved last September, the city shall “Provide necessary support to Developer while Developer constructs public infrastructure to include Silverback Way, a road connecting Centennial Drive with Silverback Landing, including a boulevard roadway approximately 1,925 feet in length with curb and gutter, a box culvert, storm sewer, sidewalk, earthwork and other related improvements.” Construction of Silverback Way, however, is being paid for by the city and Pittsburg State University.

“The City issued General Obligation bonds for Silverback Way in the amount of $1.5 million,” according to Pittsburg Public Information Manager Sarah Runyon. “The City will pay back $1,250,000 over 10 years. PSU will contribute $250,000 through a special assessment over the same period.” While Silverback Way is being built on city property technically outside of the boundaries of Silverback Highlands, the street is shown on a city map, along with streets within the housing development, as being part of “Phase 1” of Silverback Highlands road construction.

Cities have “pretty broad authority to use resources and revenues from other sources,” however, if they so choose, to further incentivize development in a RHID, according to Robert North, chief counsel with the Kansas Department of Commerce.

“Now I’m not saying that if they’ve been pledged to a road project somewhere else that it’s OK to take them and use them on an RHID project, I’m just saying that generally speaking, there’s broad authority within the RHID Act for a city to, you know, pledge other funds to a project,” North said in a June interview.

ALTERNATIVE TIMELINES

Silverback Landing being designated a RHID may not in itself prevent the city from spending additional taxpayer money to assist the developer. Even if the city is able to pay not only for the road on city property leading into Silverback Landing, but the immediate upgrade of roads built within the development from asphalt to concrete, however, additional concerns brought up by Strenth and others about Silverback Landing raise more questions about the city’s planning process for the project.

Both Strenth and the city have provided the Morning Sun with somewhat varying timelines of events in the decision-making process surrounding Silverback Landing, both of which are backed up to some extent by public records.

“It was discovered that many months before East Hills residents knew anything about the Silverback project, the city was working with the developer to build the road from the south on Centennial called Silverback Way,” Strenth said at the June 11 City Commission meeting. “The city had agreed to pay $1.25 million in order to build this road. City Manager Hall has inaccurately given the wrong facts on how all this took place.”

At the April 9 city commission meeting, City Manager Daron Hall said that “this entire discussion of roads and what roads should be made of and where they should go, it all started because the city did what cities do. We went out and we had an idea, and we had somebody approach us about a development, so we went to the neighboring community and invited everybody in the community and said, ‘Hey, here’s the concept.’”

Hall was referring to a May 29, 2018 meeting hosted by the city at the Pittsburg Public Library, to which residents of the East Hills addition, a neighborhood directly north of the Silverback Landing development, were invited.

“And it was overwhelming at that meeting that the neighbors in East Hills, our residents, our taxpayers, did not want all of the traffic of building 150 homes to come through their neighborhood,” Hall said.

“And they were listened to, and we negotiated within ourselves, we negotiated with the community, we negotiated with the city commission, and this city commission (...) agreed to spend $1.2 million of taxpayer money to build a road up from the south. So the developer agreed to build it from the south to north instead of from the north to the south.”

According to Strenth, May 2018 was the first time he or other East Hills residents had heard anything about plans for Silverback Landing.

According to documents obtained through public records requests made and paid for by East Hills residents and shared with the Morning Sun, however, tentative plans for Silverback Way were underway more than a year earlier. A May 15, 2017 email from Hall to Public Works Director Cameron Alden mentions a “New road from Centennial to Silverback Housing development.” An attached map shows the road labeled Silverback Way.

An interoffice memorandum from Alden to Hall, dated October 4, 2017, on the subject of “Engineering Design for a Roadway Connecting the City’s Property to Centennial,” also clearly references the road — along with the rationale for building it that Hall said in April was a result of a meeting more than half a year later with neighboring residents.

“Access to the site would be greatly improved as well as reducing the impact on the neighborhood immediately to the north of the property with the construction of a road connecting the property to Centennial Drive,” the October 2017 memo states. The city’s Five Year Capital Improvements Plan, adopted that same month, also lists Silverback Way as one of the planned improvements, and includes $1.5 million in “Bond Funds/Temp Notes” budgeted for the project. (Nothing else in the plan appears to be budgeted to be paid for in “temp notes.”)

Hall sat down for an interview with the Morning Sun in late June — along with Alden, Deputy City Manager Jay Byers, and Runyon — to discuss concerns raised by Strenth and others related to Silverback Landing. In that interview, Hall defended his characterization of plans for Silverback Way as emerging from the May 2018 meeting with nearby residents. He pointed out that the map from a year earlier showing Silverback Way also showed a road going over the nearby train tracks.

“So everything’s a big negotiation, right? A developer comes in, anybody comes in, ‘Hey, we’ve got an idea, we want to build something,’’’ Hall said. “And in this case it’s a residential development, so we’re like ‘OK, what do you want to build?’ ‘Well, I want to build this,’ and we’re like ‘Well, you’re probably not going to build over the train track.’ You know, I mean, if you can get the railroad, that’s fine, but most of the time the railroad company’s never going to let you build a road into a residential development over an existing train track.”

Runyon made similar comments, saying “the East Hills residents are not the only reason why that road was built, but to say that they didn’t influence the construction of that road is not factual because they came to the city commission, the commission heard their concerns about traffic, and it solidified the decision that ‘Hey, we need to have enough roads so that we mitigate the amount of traffic that’s coming through this other neighborhood.’ And it’s probably a good idea.”

REDACTED RECORDS AND DOUBLE STANDARDS

Hall said the fact that the city had tentative plans for the road prior to the May 2018 meeting with residents was taken out of context.

“I was happy when they did Freedom of Information request that this is all they’ve come up with is ‘Well, if I take this email out of context and show something I can prove these people to be maybe not truthful,’ or whatever they’re trying to prove,” Hall said. He pointed out that very few residents have repeatedly come to city commission meetings and been vocal in their opposition to various aspects of the Silverback Landing plan. He used the acronym NIMBY — which stands for “not in my back yard” — to describe their concerns.

“This is a NIMBY issue,” Hall said.

In the specific case of Silverback Landing, this explanation is arguably understandable. Aside from Strenth, only a small number of residents have been regularly speaking at city commission meetings in recent months in opposition to a variety of aspects of the city’s Silverback Landing plans. Most notably Cheryl Brooks, who also lives in East Hills and is now running for a spot on the city commission, has spoken about Silverback Landing at numerous commission meetings.

Public records recently obtained by this newspaper from the City of Frontenac, however, show that the very same day that Hall spoke with the Morning Sun, just hours earlier, he had emailed Frontenac City Administrator Brad Reams to propose an agreement to resolve a dispute over a similar controversy.

Frontenac did not accept Hall’s proposal, which was meant to resolve a disagreement over Pittsburg’s construction of a section of road within Frontenac’s city limits — which, like Silverback Way, connects a major street to a new development, in this case Pittsburg Highlands, which, like Silverback Landing, is also designated as a RHID — and is now suing Pittsburg over its construction of the road.

Correspondence between Pittsburg and Frontenac officials also shows that Pittsburg has no documentation of any traffic study, stormwater study, environmental study, or authorization to install a stop sign at the corner of Atkinson Ave and Wild Red Road in Frontenac.

Interestingly, records obtained from the City of Frontenac show that Pittsburg waived fees associated with Frontenac’s request for various records, some of which Pittsburg was unable to produce as they apparently do not exist.

This stands in sharp contrast to its response to a public records request from its own residents regarding Silverback Landing. That request, made by Keith Kloster, was paid for with money pooled together by a group of East Hills residents, because the city charged more than $900 for the documents. It also extensively redacted, or blacked out, portions of the documents, despite some of the redacted sections being parts of meeting agendas and minutes that are publicly accessible online. For comparison, more than 50 pages of documents recently obtained by the Morning Sun from the City of Frontenac contained no redacted portions.

In his interview with the Morning Sun — the same day he had earlier proposed an agreement with the City of Frontenac that city officials there apparently found so unacceptable that it proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back and sparked Frontenac’s taking legal action against Pittsburg — Hall said redactions made to documents provided to Pittsburg resident Keith Kloster were not done to increase the amount of money that could be billed for them by claiming it as payment for time spent working on the records request, which might discourage residents from following through on seeking the records.

“The redaction doesn’t take any time,” Hall said. “What takes time, whether I’m redacting a sentence or not, I have to read it, to make sure that it isn’t something about somebody’s Social Security number, or some private contract thing. Every document, every line of every document has to be read. Putting a black line through something, that’s not doubling the amount of time, that’s just part of the process in the review.”

While some kinds of government documents do sometimes contain sensitive information, this is not generally the case when it comes to publicly accessible meeting agendas or minutes.

“But nobody’s sitting back saying ‘Hey let’s redact a whole bunch of crap so we can blow up this bill,’” Hall said. “Quite frankly, I thought we did a pretty good job with the response. We did it on time and considering how many people were involved and what the request was — anything that said Silverback or had anything to do with Silverback — I thought that was an extremely fair response. That’s what a fishing expedition looks like.”