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Wichita has no map, poor system of tracking city property

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, May 9, 2009, at 10:11 p.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, May 12, 2009, at 11:03 a.m.

— The city of Wichita owns more than 11,000 acres that include multimillion-dollar buildings such as City Hall, an overgrown wildlife preserve and small, oddly shaped plots worth as little as $10.

But a disjointed records system leaves city officials and the public unable to quickly spot sellable land, say which department is responsible for upkeep or distinguish between parks, rights of way and corporate grounds the city holds title to as collateral for tax incentives, a weeks-long examination shows.

The city also lacks a map of its properties, leaving some City Council members and the public with only a vague concept of what's out there.

City Manager Robert Layton said he thought the records were lacking when he began reviewing them months ago.

During an interview with The Eagle and KWCH Channel 12, he said the city will consider giving some property with no future use back to nearby landowners to put it back on the tax rolls.

But it's unclear how many of those there are or whether property owners would want them.

Even if the city could quickly locate properties to sell, it probably wouldn't have a big effect on the city's projected $9 million shortfall next year because land values have decreased.

The city could, however, benefit from ditching some of its less attractive parcels.

"If we have surplus property we don't have a need for, we don't want to add to our expenses by maintaining that or making it an eyesore in the neighborhood," Layton said.

Layton and John Philbrick, the city's property manager, pledged to improve their records systems to more readily identify land they could sell, make it easier to see what the plan for that land is and make the city more accountable for taking care of what it has.

But that could take a year or more.

The city has only three people in property management -- down from seven employees years ago -- and they don't have some of the software and technical knowledge needed to map property, quickly track its history and convey that to interested buyers or curious taxpayers.

Added to that, property managers are scrambling to assemble rights of way for fast-track federal stimulus projects.

Officials acknowledge some shortfalls, but think they rarely overlook property maintenance or sales potential.

City property managers say they can usually track this information down.

11,058 acres, value unknown

The city has 3,460 pieces of land that cover 11,058 acres inside and outside city limits.

The land use varies widely, from a bomb range to staging grounds for Kellogg construction companies to a wildlife preserve mostly surrounded by development.

The city buys properties to make way for roads and sewers, to capture land for future parks, to provide public housing, and to house city services such as police, fire and water treatment.

The market value of the properties is perhaps impossible to calculate because the city doesn't track that unless it's preparing a particular piece for sale.

But county valuations show the city owns more than $552 million in property.

That includes millions in property the city owns in name only, such as parcels owned by aviation companies that offer land title as collateral for tax breaks.

Altogether, county values show $1,527.66 worth of city-owned land for each Wichitan.

Vacant in name only

The city's property records contain more than 3,000 acres -- or $52.8 million -- that is classified as vacant.

But many of those lots aren't really vacant.

Some have houses, parks, businesses and roads on them. In many cases, the city never adjusted its records to account for those things.

Other holdings, such as the overgrown swath of partially fenced land on the northwest corner of Hillside and 27th North, were bought to one day become park space.

The north portion houses Grove Park and recently added playground equipment and landscaping.

But the planning and funding are still in the works for the rest of the land -- and there's no timeline for improvements.

Doug Kupper, director of parks and recreation, said neighborhood groups and the park board had hoped to make that swath on North Hillside a youth golf practice area.

That plan appears dead. It's not included in the city's recent parks plan.

"The bottom line is it reverted back to wildlife habitat, which we have quite extensively throughout the city," Kupper said.

Chisholm Creek runs through the property, making it a natural place for some wildlife. But it is also surrounded by I-135, K-96 and subdivisions.

The land highlights some philosophical differences about whether the city should keep some property as open space or cash in on offers to develop it.

In 1998, Charles McAfee tried to turn 38 acres of parkland into a modular-home plant. Park commissioners shot down the idea.

Opponents decried the decision since nothing had been done with the land for years. Supporters applauded the board for preserving the land for a park.

Both sides thought their plans would benefit nearby neighborhoods, which, at the time, showed some need for nearby jobs as well as parkland.

James Roseboro, president of the Northeast Heights Neighborhood Association, said residents have been waiting for years for the park to develop more, perhaps with flower gardens or a community garden for residents.

"It's slowly being developed and we're very pleased with it, and we realize with the lack of funds it's going to take time," he said.

He said some people want it to remain overgrown -- a plot of natural Kansas growth in the middle of the city.

People in the area agree on one thing, he said.

"We want to keep it. That's for certain."

Marketing properties

The city last scoured its records in search of properties it could sell in 2003. That year 12 properties sold for $642,228.

It sold $2.4 million in property in 2004, about $550,000 in 2005, $963,000 in 2006, $575,000 in 2007 and $196,000 last year.

Sales vary because in some years the city has sold desirable properties along Kellogg for hundreds of thousands; other years only a few chunks of land sell.

Philbrick, the city's property manager, said his three-member team keeps an eye out for marketable properties and puts them up for sale on the city's Web site and in letters to local Realtors.

Many properties go years without serious interest -- perhaps because they're undesirable pieces, perhaps because they haven't been advertised well enough.

Council member Paul Gray said he thinks the city holds too much land and that there are probably better ways to sell what's surplus.

Just putting properties on the Web site is not enough, and, he said, some sellable properties don't show up.

It might be wiser, he said, to sell the land through brokers.

For example, few people seemed aware of the city's property at First Street and Waco. The city is now negotiating with the YMCA, which may put a new downtown branch there.

Spot checks of archived Web pages dating back to 2003 show that property, obtained more than a decade ago, wasn't on the sale page until this year.

Philbrick said some properties haven't been on the sale list but are still open to offers.

The city passed on one such offer for First and Waco, but now appears poised to settle on a plan for the YMCA.

Just up the street, another plot at Waco and Central has been for sale for years.

It's well-kept, near hundreds of apartments, the Arkansas River and the government center.

Philbrick said questions about access to Central and other unknown factors have left that plot, just a block from City Hall, with little interest.

It's tough to know whether this vacant land -- be it downtown or along Kellogg -- upsets people because it's off tax rolls and largely unused or pleases them because it provides open space between developments.

In a 2006 survey the city commissioned, the overall rating of "land use, planning and zoning" was a 34 out of 100 -- poor marks from the 967 people who responded.

Contributing: Hurst Laviana of The Eagle
Reach Brent D. Wistrom at 316-268-6228 or bwistrom@wichitaeagle.com.

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