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Sprawl Brawl

Chuck Weber tries to keep the hated Lowry Meadows from going out to pasture.

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Chuck Weber didn't like what he heard.

In September, the former Kansas City councilman listened as Northland developer Tim Harris told Weber his troubles. A small group of citizens was threatening to kill Harris' proposed Lowry Meadows and Lowry Hills, a 250-acre housing-and-shopping hodgepodge off Interstate 435.

The idea and the area mean a great deal to Weber. As a councilman in the early 1990s, he had fought attempts to put a landfill on the same site. He won, and in the past decade, he's watched with pride as the Northland became Kansas City's fastest-growing region.

Weber isn't troubled by the fact that the ever-growing Northland has become Kansas City's Johnson County, marked by strip malls and subdivisions with self-glamorizing names such as Amber Meadows, Summer Brook and Northampton. Weber says that's what people want. "Why did Johnson County explode the way it did?" he asks.

Twenty miles north of downtown and just west of Liberty, the proposed development site is seemingly in the middle of nowhere -- but still within city limits. Now longtime residents, folks who shunned city living years ago for ranch-style homes on acreage properties, are stewing over plans that threaten their seclusive lifestyle.

"What you have here is about 100 people who are now well-educated about development in Kansas City," says Chuck Matthews, a leader in the fight against Harris' project. "These people are passionate."

Matthews' group, which calls itself Strategic Alliance for Focused Expansion, has battled Harris since he proposed the idea thirteen months ago. It's turned into the most contentious development dispute in recent city history.

SAFE members complain about potential traffic jams on Highway 291; the area's distance from police and fire resources; a lack of green space; and the environmental effect on the Fishing River watershed. They've cited a study by the Missouri Department of Conservation as well as negative opinions expressed by city staffers and SAFE's own hired land-planning contractors. Perhaps most cleverly, they've invoked FOCUS, Kansas City's long-term strategy for development, in labeling Harris' project "leapfrog" development. "It's a dot in this mass of land," Matthews says. "That's exactly what FOCUS says not to do."

Those concerns are selfish and outdated, according to former councilman and Harris attorney Mike Burke, who points out that the Northland has grown by more than 500 percent since 1990, in part because of Harris' company, Star Development.

But for months, City Hall staffers sided with SAFE, routinely disapproving Harris' plan. As recently as July, City Planner Tim Parks told Harris to reconfigure the plan's layout and decrease the amount of commercial real estate.

By September, Harris had tweaked his proposal enough to get Parks' recommendation. But Parks' bosses on the City Planning Commission proved more difficult to please. When Burke spoke at a Planning Commission meeting, he admitted that opposition had been unusually strong. "We've received calls from as much as three miles away, from people concerned about this project," Burke said, "to the point that we've kind of scratched our heads over what's rankling them."

Citing the same objections as SAFE, the five voting commissioners unanimously rejected Harris' project.

Harris, who has seen the Planning Commission approve several of his other plans, says he was "amazed" at the decision.

"There are certain things you can turn a development down for," he says. "At the Planning Commission, we were turned down for all the wrong reasons." To Harris, the real issue is not watersheds, traffic, police officers, firemen or FOCUS -- all of which he says his plan addresses adequately. "It's not about the type of development that's there," he says. "It's about any development."

Still, SAFE members believe they're getting screwed. Last month, after the Planning Commission belittled Harris' plan, Northland Councilman Ed Ford gave it new life by introducing the proposal to the City Council's Planning and Zoning Committee. If the plan advances out of committee, the full City Council could approve Harris' plan before December. After a yearlong battle resulting in SAFE's victory at the Planning Commission, Matthews considers that possibility devastating.

"Why would Ed Ford propose this when it has been unanimously defeated, the city staff has criticized the plan and contract personnel have said it stinks?" Matthews asks. "Why would you submit this without major changes? Why would you not send the developer back to the drawing board?"

"Just because I introduced it doesn't mean I plan to rubber-stamp it," Ford counters. He says Harris will need to change the plan before it reaches the City Council this month. Even then, Ford may vote against it.

But, Ford says, he hopes that Harris and SAFE will reach a compromise in the next few weeks -- even though the two sides have failed to do so in more than a year of bickering.

"There's nothing wrong with this plan," Weber says in the developer's defense. "It's strictly politics. Somebody has some political clout, and there's an election year coming up."

Opponents point out the irony of that claim; in 1997, Weber pleaded guilty to facilitating a bribe between two Northland developers and Weber's fellow councilman Michael Hernandez.

SAFE members grew jittery when they heard that Weber had put in a phone call to try to sway one opponent of Harris' plan.

Weber says he did contact one powerful SAFE supporter, Landon Rowland, CEO of Stilwell Financial and former head of Kansas City Southern. Rowland's residential property neighbors the proposed development site. Figuring Rowland had enough influence to make a difference in the project's success or failure, Weber tried to convince him that Harris' plan was best for Kansas City. "He didn't sway me, I didn't sway him," Weber says of the conversation. Rowland declined to comment for this story.

SAFE leaders consider Weber's move a desperate political measure. "To me, it meant that they were misguided because they thought Landon was the driving force," Matthews says.

If the proposal advances next month, SAFE can expect at least one Northlander to vote in the group's favor. In October, Mayor Kay Barnes wrote to one member and pledged her support. "I share your concerns about the negative impact this development could have on the city's transportation and infrastructure systems, as well as the impact on storm water drainage and the Fishing River watershed," Barnes wrote. "If this development plan is introduced as an ordinance ... and forwarded to the full council for consideration, I plan to vote against it."

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