Danedri Thompson
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County officials put a high emphasis on acquiring park land at the end of the 1990s.
“It was, let’s get the land now while it’s affordable,” Randy Knight, community relations manager for the Johnson County Parks and Recreation District, said.
Despite more than a decade of ownership, however, there are no immediate plans to develop Big Bull Creek Park in Edgerton.
The initial 1,400 acre park site is slightly smaller these days after the city of Edgerton’ purchased 15 acres for $196,000.
Johnson County commissioner Calvin Hayden, who represents Gardner and Edgerton, said he was not happy with the way Edgerton’s land acquisition from the county parks and recreation department was handled.
“I sat there in disbelief,” Hayden said. “Here you’ve got governments negotiating with governments because one’s trying to make a profit. They’re not helping each other.
Edgerton condemned a portion of Big Bull Creek Park in order to acquire it. A panel of judges determined the value of the land.
That was necessary, according to Michael Meadors, director of the Johnson County Parks and Recreation district.
Johnson County voters invested $6 million in the park site more than a dozen years ago with the approval of a bond issue in 1998.
“The condemnation wasn’t our board or our staff’s unwillingness to participate,” Meadors explained. “Because (the land) was purchased through general obligation bonds, the only way it could be sold to Edgerton was through condemnation.”
Likewise, proceeds of the property sale are regulated. The county parks department can only do one of two things with the $196,000 Edgerton paid for 15 acres.
“It will either be used to pay down the debt, or it will have to be used to buy replacement property, which to be honest, we’re not going to find land for $11,000 an acre right now,” Meadors said.
Appraisers hired by the county and by the city of Edgerton had very different views on the value of the 15 acres. Edgerton wanted to pay $9,000 per acre. The county hoped to earn $28,000 per acre. In the end, Edgerton paid $13,600 per acre.
Bond regulations also would require that the land purchased with the funds be in a certain geographic area. Meadors said if a landowner near the property has 15 acres they’d like to sell for $11,000 apeice, the parks district would be willing to consider the purchase.
Meanwhile, the land Edgerton purchased will be developed as part of a joint sewer project that will service the intermodal and southwest portions of the city of Gardner. The remainder of the park will continue to be undeveloped and closed off to the public.
There are no immediate plans to develop Big Bull Creek Park. Funding is the problem, Meadors said.
The parks department doesn’t have funding to create a development plan for the park – let alone begin construction.
A board of appointed officials oversees Johnson County’s park’s district. The arrangement, written in state statute and approved by voters, gives the organization the authority to tax property with limited oversight from the elected county commission.
The Johnson County Parks and Recreation District is the only such entity in the state of Kansas. Its creation was approved by fewer than 100 votes in 1954.
“By that thin margin, it came into existence,” Knight said.
At the time, residents hoped to purchase and develop Shawnee Mission Park.
“The negative piece that came out of that campaign is, ‘who needs a park way out there?’ And they were talking about Shawnee Mission Park.” Knight said. “You can’t shoehorn park acreage into developed property.”
The resulting state statute did not, however, authorize the parks district to put  sales tax referendums on the ballot.
And that’s what Meadors believes would be necessary to start developing thousands of unused park acreage in Johnson County. He believes if asked, Johnson County residents would support developing the county’s park land.
“Parks and recreation referendums are generally received very well by the people of this county. We’re anxious for that opportunity,” Meadors said.
That opportunity, however, requires the approval of the county commission, who Meadors admits have different priorities.
“They have a difficult task, because they’re elected, of appeasing all of their constituencies,” he said.
That includes keeping the mill levy or property taxes level. Meanwhile, Meadors said, the parks district faces pressure from Edgerton residents who want to see Big Bull Creek Park developed. There is pressure from other communities. Meadors said residents near Cedar Niles Road and 127th Street, for example, are anxious to have access to Rikki Lake, a once privately-owned lake where nearby residents were allowed to fish. Now that it’s county-owned, the lake is closed to the public.
Meadors said the county commission has tasked the parks board with maintaining existing services, not developing existing parkland. The recession has drained the parks district’s resources. They have 16 percent fewer employees, due to decreasing property values have lost approximately 30 percent of their general fund budget in the last six years.
Short of a parks sales tax, Meadors envisions a future in which the parks department might partner with the city of Edgerton to develop a portion of Big Bull Creek Park.
Knight said residents should focus on the positives.
“It’s frustrating to drive past open space at Big Bull Creek that’s not being utilized,” he said.
He advises residents to take a quick drive down to Kill Creek Park near De Soto.
“And take a deep breath and appreciate what you have,” he said. “You are within reach of some pretty substantial park space. It’s going to take all of us to pull off the future funding of what comes next.”
This story first appeared in the Oct. 2, 2011 edition of The Gardner News.