Two seldom-seen snake species that have created a bureaucratic snarl in Johnson County now have residents of a subdivision near 151st Street and Mission Road up in arms.
Johnson County officials have for several years been trying to build a sewer line for a planned development in southwestern Shawnee. But the sewer line construction has been held up because the state ordered the county to replace any endangered snake species’ habitat that sewer construction disturbs. A few years ago, the state warned the county that the line would disturb the habitat of the endangered redbelly and smooth earth snakes.
So more than a year ago, county officials designated 11 acres for the replacement habitat, located about 22 miles away at 151st Street and Mission Road in Overland Park near the Blue River Wastewater Treatment Facility. The cost of the new habitat has been estimated from $250,000 to $500,000.
Johnson County commissioners did not learn about the price tag until several weeks ago and some were quick to criticize the taxpayer expense.
Now, Tara Geer and other residents of subdivisions near the proposed habitat in Overland Park are wondering why they have only just heard about the county’s plans. Geer, who has sent emails to about 150 neighbors explaining the issue, says she plans to voice her concerns at the commissioners’ meeting Thursday, where they could vote on the replacement habitat.
“They are going to have to make a decision knowing that a bunch of people are upset about it,” Geer said. “This has not been very well thought-out. What are you going to do when you want to sell your house? ‘Oh please come buy my house. It has private views of the snake habitat.’ ”
Although the county had appeared to be ready to move forward on the mitigation plan, on Tuesday County Manager Hannes Zacharias said a vote by commissioners might be delayed Thursday.
Commission Chairman Ed Eilert and others from the county are in discussions this week with Kansas Parks, Wildlife and Tourism officials to get more clarification from the state on what needs to be done.
“Whether we can resolve the issue between now and the meeting is doubtful,” Zacharias said. “We are having conversations to understand more clearly what the reasons are to have these two species protected in the way that they are requiring. We want to know if there are other alternatives to what we are proposing that are more inexpensive and what are our options and explore them more fully.”
The territory for the smooth earth and redbelly snakes ranges from Missouri to the East Coast and north to Canada and south to Texas. Far eastern Kansas is considered the fringe of their territory and it’s only in our area that they are threatened.
The proposed development in Shawnee began in 2007 when a consolidated sewer district was formed, and soon after, the county began collecting sewer taxes from land owners. The cost to build the sewers was estimated to be $4.3 million.
After the county submitted a permit to the state for the sewer work, it learned about the snake restrictions. Work was to begin in spring 2010 but was halted “because of the difficulties associated with obtaining approval for the project” from the Kansas Department of Parks, Wildlife and Tourism, according to a county summary last year.
Johnson County Wastewater staff had worked with the wildlife department for two years to try to solve the problem, according to the summary. One county estimate for a new habitat was as much as $1.4 million dollars or 33 percent of the project cost, the document said.
The county already has spent $500,000 on designing the sewer project, so to drop it would be difficult.
One of the land owners, SC Real Estate Investment LLC, has quit paying the sewer tax bill.
Craig Eymann, who developed Cedar Creek in Olathe, owns three parcels in the Shawnee development, totaling more than 100 acres. He owes more than $100,000.
“We are not going to write a big check for these sewers and nothing is being done,” Eymann said.
Eymann said he wouldn’t have a problem with the snakes if he believed they were endangered but he doesn’t agree with the state.
“All this for a snake you can’t see,” Eymann said.
State wildlife department officials have said they think the cost for mitigation could be less than $170,000 if the county would use a few acres of its large park holdings, according to email obtained by The Star.
Eric John, the state’s ecological services chief, “is frustrated that we are not working together to improve park habitat as mitigation at what he believes would be low or no cost,” John O’Neil, the wastewater department general manager, wrote in an Aug. 8 email county officials. “He plans to work with us to make that happen.”
Just how many snakes might be shoved from their home by the sewer project is hard to tell. Wildlife officials pointed out in the emails that they do not plan to transport any snakes from their current habitat to the new one at 151st Street and Mission Road; they simply want the county to have a replacement habitat for the snakes.
The snakes spend time in cool damp places and underground. With the drought, they are seen infrequently.
Geer said commissioners need to find a solution.
“We elect these people to solve these types of problems, not to just throw their hands up at some bureaucracy and say, ‘Oh well, we have to do it this way because we don’t have a choice,’ ” Geer said. “You do have a choice. Make a change.”
To reach Karen Dillon, call 816-234-4430 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.