Gardner intermodal annexation vote could have far-reaching consequences
The signs at the entrances to Gardner welcome visitors with "Where the travels divide," a reference to the city's roots as the dividing point of Oregon and Santa Fe trails. For the past six months, signs demanding "No intermodal" have called into question the southwest Johnson County city's future as a transportation hub.
In the words of one Johnson County Commissioner, the signs refer to the most significant economic development project in the Kansas City metropolitan area in a half century and one that will affect the entire county and metropolitan area.
The two-word statement on the signs protest the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad's plans to build a truck container transfer yard and warehouse complex on 1,300 acres southwest of Gardner.
Just how widespread opposition to the proposal is will be tested Tuesday when Gardner residents vote on whether to annex the site. Opponents hope a no vote will convince the railroad to look elsewhere.
A study completed by the Southwest Johnson County Economic Development Corporation suggests the stakes are huge. The study found the intermodal and a proposed neighboring warehouse complex to be known as Logistics Park would create 3,396 in Gardner jobs in the next 20 years and provide the economic stimulus to add another 3,800 jobs in Johnson County.
That means new homes and new businesses in De Soto, economic development professionals say. And Johnson County Commissioner Doug Wood said it could provide the stimulus to complete a north/south highway through the Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant connecting Interstate 35 to Kansas Highway 10.
Opponents fear quality of life loss
Opponents concede the immensity of the project, but fear the traffic, noise and environmental degradation caused by the rail traffic idling near the town and the 1,800 trucks a day that will visit the site when it opens in 2008
"The main issue is quality of life," said Linda Mesinger, who owns the Dolphin Song gift store in an old bank in downtown Gardner. "It's going to be so huge it's going to destroy the quality of life in Gardner.
"People did not choose to live or move to Gardner to live near an industrial site. It's not in Gardner's comprehensive plan. Anyone coming out here to build is not looking to live in an industrial site."
Although not a member of the opponent group, Citizens for Responsible Development, she does closely cooperate with its members, Mesinger said. She and the group were urging voters to vote against annexing the property as a way of stopping the project, which in the language of the ballot questions requires a yes vote.
The two-word "No intermodal" message on the signs is inappropriate, said BNSF spokesman Steve Forsberg. The question is not whether BNSF will build a yard at the site to load and off-load truck containers, but whether adjacent land will be home of warehouses of such customers as Georgia Pacific, J.C. Penney's, Potlatch, Wal-Mart and other companies that have chosen to locate in parks sited along intermodals in the Dallas-Fort Worth suburb of Alliance, Texas, and the Chicago suburb of Elwood, Ill.
BNSF officials chose the Gardner site after a search for a suitable place to relocate its outdated intermodal yard in Kansas City, Kan, Forsberg said.
"It wasn't even close," he said. "And we looked for a year-and-a-half."
The Gardner site's greatest appeal is that it is adjacent to the railroad's main transcontinental line from Chicago to Los Angeles.
"Eleven million truck trailers were shipped by train last year," he said. "Five million were shipped by our railroad. Three million pass through Kansas City without a single tire touching the ground. Ten percent get off here. That is what this facility will be for. It will be adjacent to the busiest intermodal line in the country."
The site's other asset is the proximity of I-35, which runs parallel to the BNSF tracks less than a mile to the south. Forsberg said the plan was to work with the state and county to construct an interchange at 199th Street to allow truck traffic direct access to the intermodal from the interstate.
Railroads are exempt to the zoning regulations concerning their operations. If the railroad has determined to build a state-of-the-art truck container transfer yard southeast of Gardner, local governments are powerless to stop it.
The part of BNSF's plan that could be affected by Tuesday's vote is the 1,000-acre Logistics Park warehouse complex, which would be built between the railroad and I-35.
The city of Gardner or Johnson County would have zoning control of warehouse development. The vote Tuesday could decide which jurisdiction will make that decision.
The refusal of Gardner of the county to approve Logistics Park could kill that part of the development plan, Forsberg said, but it wouldn't stop companies from building warehouses near the intermodal or some other city, possibly Edgerton two miles to the southwest, from welcoming a warehouse park.
The joint intermodal and Logistics Park was a "21st century development" that addressed urban sprawl by containing warehouse traffic to one site where measures were in place to mitigate traffic, noise, lighting and other concerns, Forsberg said. It would reduce emissions overall in the metropolitan area by greatly reducing the distances trucks must travel back and forth to warehouses, he said.
Although John Toplikar, who represents Gardner on the Johnson County Commission, said he will respect the decision Gardner residents make Tuesday, other commissioners have said they haven't made a decision.
County Chair Annabeth Surbaugh said the commission would address the issue if it came to the county. But she said right now it was up to Gardner residents to make a decision.
Annex to control
Because of the inevitability of the intermodal and warehouse development, Johnson County Commissioner Wood argued Gardner residents should welcome the chance to annex and control it.
"This project will inevitably transform Gardner," the Olathe commissioner said. "It will turn their way of life upside down. I don't blame them for being upset about the intrusion. In my view, this is the single-most important economic development project in the metropolitan area since the completion of I-35.
"Their choice is they can annex and protect their life as much as possible or let everybody else decide what is happening to their city."
Should he be one of six commissioners asked to decide the fate of Logistics Park, he would vote for what he thought was best for the county and residents of his commission district, Wood said. And he said there was a compelling argument for concentrating the development at one site.
"The only reason I've not made up my mind is I'm waiting for someone to tell me what I'm missing," he said. "There's a lot of thoughtful people out there, but all I'm seeing is we can either have thousands and thousands of trucks traveling southern Johnson County or contain that to one area."
Annexation would also give Gardner the revenue it needed to manage the project and would be in a better position to do so than the county, which is without the authority to offer tax increment financing, Wood said.
Mesinger said the railroad's argument that the intermodal was inevitable was a bluff but an effective one.
"The hardest thing to fight is 'it's a done deal,'" she said. "Our whole thing is to keep the Logistics Park out. Denying annexation gives us room to fight this."
Mesinger maintained the BSNF had never completed similar projects without public financing. Removing the annexation option and TIF possibility would convince the railroad to look elsewhere, she said.
The Southwest Johnson County Economic Development Commission's study found the project and associated development would mean $69 million in additional property taxes to the city of Gardner in the next 20 years and $134 million to the Gardner Edgerton school district.
Those figures and the employment numbers in the report were conservative, said Lee Metcalf, executive director of Johnson County's New Century AirCenter immediately east of Gardner.
"The first numbers were shocking and hard to believe," he said. "So they racketed them down to make them more believable."
Gardner City Councilman Mark Raney, who opposes the project, said he didn't dispute the numbers. But he still saw no benefit to the city because of the tremendous public investment the city would have to make in the project.
The BNSF would require TIFs and other tax breaks to pay for the I-35 interchange, access road and other infrastructure elements that would equal the tax revenue.
"I see no real payback for 10 to 15 years," he said.
Raney said there was no reason the city could manage the project better than the county and that most of the proposed controls were "window dressing."
"The things we can control, like truck access, are things they have to have to make it work," he said. "Gardner will have better opportunities, of course. I quite frankly think Gardner would be wise to walk away from this thing."
Metcalf and Tom Reiderer, who last month replaced Greg Kindle -- the author of the study -- as the Southwest Johnson County EDC's executive director, said the scale of the project would have economic consequences throughout Johnson County and those neighboring it. That would come from a second ring of related development that couldn't locate in Logistics Park or chose not to and from residential growth from those working at the site, they said.
Forsberg agreed, saying that was the experience at BNSF's existing intermodal sites in Elwood and Alliance.
Wood said there would be another benefit for De Soto. The project would provide stimulus for a talked about north/south highway through the Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant linking I-35 to Kansas Highway 10 and, from there, the improved road south of a new Tonganoxie Kansas Turnpike interchange linking Interstate 70 to K-10.