‘Don’t overcrowd the city’: Neighbors object, Johnson County apartment plan stalls again

The Shawnee City Council on Monday sent a proposal for a housing development off of Kansas 7 Highway back to the drawing board, as nearby homeowners protest the plans.

Neighbors have submitted a protest petition, and gathered 430 signatures on Change.org, in opposition to plans for 184 apartments and townhomes on 16 acres in the western part of the city, between Old K-7 Highway and K-7 Highway, south of 47th Street and north of 55th Street. The developer, naming the project The Zarah, wants to build four three-story apartment buildings and seven two-story townhome buildings on the rural land, which now has a 1970s-era home and three greenhouses.

Lisa Vanmeerhaeghe, who has run a gift and garden center on the property since the 1980s, said she supports the proposal and wouldn’t be selling her land if she didn’t.

But after three hours of discussion on Monday evening, the City Council voted 7-1 to send the proposal back to the planning commission to be reworked. Echoing neighbor concerns, council members asked for the developer to reduce the housing density, increase parking, and address flooding, safety and traffic concerns.

“They’re just trying to cram too much in this space,” neighbor Tyler Smith told the council. “… Don’t overcrowd the city more. We already have townhomes. We moved to this area because Shawnee has a hometown feeling. Please don’t take that away from us.”

“You’ve got the folks directly across the street from a rural property that’s been there for 50 years,” Chad Fagerberg, who lives in the nearby Highland Ridge subdivision, told the council. “Could you imagine being on your deck and then you’ve got this thing going on 24 hours a day? All these people.”

He argued that homeowner-occupied units would be a better fit, saying, “Our slogan should be ‘Shawnee, where the people own homes, not the corporations.’ Not ‘Shawnee, corporations own it, but you can rent it.’”

The planning commission last month voted 7-1 to approve rezoning for the project, with the majority deciding the plans met city requirements and fit in with the city’s vision for the area. Tucked between the two highways, the area is surrounded by single-family homes, as well as a nearby townhome complex.

Jason Osborne, with the architecture firm Rosemann and Associates, said the development team has worked to design a project that suits the neighborhood and address residents’ concerns. The team already reduced the number of units from the amount originally planned, he said.

“The project was actually named The Zarah in a recognition to what Shawnee used to be. The name itself is a head nod to what this community is,” he said.

Zarah was a small community located along the Santa Fe Railway line that was annexed in the city of Shawnee around 1970.

“The kind of development we’re doing is a head nod to what we expect it to be. I live in Shawnee. … I’ve liked living in Shawnee for quite some time. And I want to see things that happen in Shawnee move in the correct direction as well. I think appropriate development is exactly what this should be.”

He said the developer, Brian Jones Enterprises, is invested in the community, saying the team will be a good neighbor that doesn’t “leave you with a commodity and heartburn.”

He said the buildings would be clustered in the center of the site, with plenty of landscaping and trees as a buffer space. He said a stream that traverses the southern portion of the site would remain untouched. And he believes there’s enough parking, meeting the city’s standard of two spots per unit.

Plans also include a dog park, pool and clubhouse for residents.

The Shawnee City Council is asking for changes to a proposal for 184 apartments and townhomes in the western part of the city, off of K-7 Highway. City of Shawnee
The Shawnee City Council is asking for changes to a proposal for 184 apartments and townhomes in the western part of the city, off of K-7 Highway. City of Shawnee

But nearby homeowners worried that the new traffic would add congestion to roads that already get backed up by cars hopping on K-7. They fear that the project would lead to flooding issues, and that their neighborhood streets would become host to overflow parking, arguing that there aren’t enough proposed spaces.

Neighbor and mom Julie Palmeri said she is worried about pedestrian safety, claiming that she already has been advocating for additional sidewalks and crosswalks with little success.

“A crosswalk fight for the area, with the population as it is, has been a struggle. So how are we supposed to believe that something is suddenly going to get better when hundreds of residents are added to the area?

“It is extremely dangerous for my family to walk to the park,” she said. “I take my kids to Belmont (Elementary) every school day and have seen kids almost hit by cars several times. This literally makes me sick to my stomach. … To me, this feels like the city is putting the cost of our children’s safety and lives at stake for some apartments to go up.”

Developers said the project would include market-rate housing.

“I would argue that Shawnee needs more affordable housing so those who are currently renting townhomes or apartments can afford to buy a house,” neighbor Stephanie Brading said. She added that she moved to western Shawnee to be in a “small town right next to a big city,” and a farther drive from busier commercial districts.

Kevin Manning, deputy public works director, said the city has studied expected traffic impacts, as well as future options for road improvements. He estimates the project would generate about 80 additional daily trips from vehicles leaving or entering the project in the morning peak hour, and 100 trips in the evening.

Manning said residents have concerns about traffic backing up at the intersection of Old K-7 and 55th Street, so the developer has agreed to extend the southbound turn lane. And he said the city is exploring how to address growing congestion on 55th Street, possibly by adding a mini roundabout, four-way stop or traffic signal.

Councilwoman Jill Chalfie was the only one to support the project as-is, saying that land off of the highway is an appropriate place for a multifamily project under the city’s long-term plans.

But the majority of council members said neighbors were making valid arguments, and remanded the issue back to the planning commission.

“I think safety is a concern,” Councilman Kurt Knappen said. “I would like us to look at a couple of these other possibilities and see if there’s remedies. Do we need a crosswalk going across there right at Highland Ridge? Do we need a roundabout at 55th and Old K-7? I’m glad to hear we’re extending that left lane if we put this in. But I think we could look into a couple of those, see if there’s a remedy and see if the developer might be willing to work with us on those, because they’ve been willing to work with us on other things.”

City officials have yet to say how long reworking the project will take before the planning commission considers it again.