PAOLA — Paola city leaders have been working with Chris Williams of Highlands Development for the past 19 months, ironing out the details of an incentive package designed to allow for the development of a 36-acre tract of land near the city’s primary entryway.
The former Ursuline Sisters pasture land is nestled between the high-traffic roadways of Baptiste Drive and Hedge Lane, just east of Paola’s Walmart. The new development is being called Paola Crossings.
The current proposal includes the creation of a Redevelopment District, which would involve the utilization of a Tax Incremental Financing (TIF) policy that the city revised last fall in preparation for this project, as well as the creation of a Community Improvement District (CID) that would generate additional sales tax revenue for the developer.
But before the city and the developer can move forward with the plans, they first have to make sure the proposal is not shot down by two other property tax-collecting entities — the county and the school district.
Williams and Paola City Manager Jay Wieland attended the Paola school board meeting Monday, Sept. 9, to present the current proposal and answer questions from school board members. They were joined by Paola Mayor Artie Stuteville, Paola City Council members Leigh House and Trent Upshaw, and Miami County Commissioner Rob Roberts.
Newly elected school board president Amanda Martell said she understands the desire for growth and development, but she believes the increase in traffic that would come with the development would be a safety hazard to the students walking to and from the nearby schools.
“Is it the right thing for student safety in an already congested area?” Martell asked about the development. “You will have more traffic in that area.”
Williams said the current design plan calls for the creation of a south entrance into the development off Baptiste Drive, along with two entrances from Hedge Lane, which will help create a new traffic flow. He also said he plans to work with the city to meet any and all safety requirements attached to the development based on the results of a traffic study.
Wieland said the city is concerned about the traffic in the area as well, which is why plans are already in the works to widen and redesign the intersection of Hedge Lane and Baptiste Drive.
Late last year, the city learned the intersection project is eligible for Highway Safety Improvement Program funding. The Kansas Department of Transportation has approved the city’s application and has made an offer to allocate up to $300,000 for the construction of a right turn lane onto Hedge Lane for westbound Baptiste Drive traffic.
Given the current configuration, semi-trucks are having a difficult time clearing the turning radius, especially if vehicles are occupying the Hedge Lane left turn lane, city officials have learned.
Other planned improvements include updating traffic signalization with LED indications, retroreflective backplates for signal heads, countdown timers, Accessible Pedestrian Signal (APS) push buttons, and the addition of a battery backup system.
The federal funding would come in the form of a matching grant, with the federal funds covering 90 percent of the project up to $300,000, and the city covering 10 percent, along with any costs over $300,000.
The work would need to be completed in KDOT’s 2020 or 2021 fiscal years.
Even with the planned improvements, Martell said she can’t endorse the project.
“We have the most inexperienced drivers in this community driving in that area, and it is already congested,” she said.
Stuteville, who also drives a taxi in town, said she noticed an increase in student foot traffic in the area after the Paola school district eliminated busing for students who live within 2.5 miles of school. The decision was made during the 2010-11 school year due to budget constraints.
The other school board members asked questions about the project during the Sept. 9 presentation but did not express their intention to vote one way or another.
Superintendent Matt Meek said the school board members don’t have to vote to approve the project, but they would need to eventually vote against it if they wanted to keep it from moving forward.
The Paola City Council plans to conduct a public hearing for the development proposal during its regular council meeting beginning at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 8, at the Paola Justice Center.
If it is approved, there will be a 30-day period in which the county or school district could adopt a resolution objecting to the redevelopment district, which would veto the plan.
Roberts said he supports the plan.
“This property will probably never be developed without this,” Roberts said.
Since there is a potential for some residential structures to be built within the development, Meek addressed the concern that an influx in students could require the school district to have to expand buildings.
Meek said the district’s enrollment dropped by about 100 students last year, and it looks like it will drop by another 20 or 30 this year.
“Even if we got 200 new students, we would be able to absorb them within our current buildings,” Meek said.
Williams said his focus with the first phase of the development is retail and commercial, and the possibility of residential development would come later in the northern part of the tract. He said townhomes are a possibility, but it will all depend on what type of interest he receives in development.
Meek also didn’t express concern about losing any future property tax increases on the property, as the district currently only collects less than $100 in property tax from the tract each year.
“I do not see this being a detriment to us financially,” Meek said.
TIFs divert future property tax revenue increases from a defined area or district toward an economic development project in the community. Wieland said the proposed plan isn’t a typical TIF, though, as the city won’t be issuing any bonds to fund initial excavation or infrastructure work. Instead, the developer will be utilizing a pay-as-you-go approach in which he will put up the initial development costs and then be repaid with the incremental property tax increases from the land as it develops.
He added that the existing property tax base on the property will remain unchanged. The developer will only capture the incremental property tax increases on the property during the TIF’s 20-year time frame.
Other categories of property tax revenue, including the state mill levy designated for schools, also cannot be captured by the developer, per state statute, Wieland said.
In addition to the TIF incentive, the proposal also includes the creation of a CID within the boundaries of the project. The district gives the developer the ability to establish a special sales tax for the development, as well as capture a portion of the city’s general sales tax.
Wieland said the developer’s special sales tax can be up to 2 percent, but the current proposal is 1.25 percent. He also added that specialty sales taxes such as the city’s quarter-cent for the fire station or the county’s quarter-cent for road and bridge projects will still be collected as normal, and those proceeds will not go to the developer.
If the Paola Crossings development is approved, it will be split into five phases, with a total estimated development cost of $14.6 million.
The first phase will consist of six lots on about 10 acres near the intersection of Baptiste Drive and Hedge Lane, and it could take two to three years to complete, Williams has said.