Politics & Government

50-year-old bathroom grant restricts options for boys ranch property

The Judge Riddel Boys Ranch shut down in 2014 after the state decided not to increase funding for it. (March 2016)
The Judge Riddel Boys Ranch shut down in 2014 after the state decided not to increase funding for it. (March 2016) File photo

An obscure federal grant to pay for a bathroom at Lake Afton Park 50 years ago is now restricting Sedgwick County’s options for the former Judge Riddel Boys Ranch, county officials say.

It prevents the sale of the property and limits its use to either parkland or a county-run youth residential facility.

The county did not realize the limitation until after it tried several times to sell or lease the property that sits at the southern edge of Lake Afton Park near Goddard.

Now it is asking for bids to demolish the buildings at the former youth residential center that closed in 2014. The property would be used as parkland. Its appraised value was $665,660 on Jan. 1.

“Any time you accept federal dollars, there are a whole lot of strings attached,” said Sedgwick County Commissioner Michael O’Donnell. “I don’t think anybody should be shocked that we’re limited.”

The facility has fallen into disrepair and has many potential Americans with Disabilities Act and code compliance issues, making any sale or lease to a nonprofit a difficult venture, he said.

“There are so many other problems besides the federal government to leasing that property or selling that property,” O’Donnell said. “We’re not dealing with property in pristine condition that is move-in ready.

“That’s why a majority of the County Commission signaled that we should move forward with tearing it down,” he added.

Property restrictions

A 1966 agreement between Sedgwick County and the Kansas Park and Resources Authority – a precursor to the state’s modern Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism – partially funded two bathrooms at Lake Afton Park.

Only one was constructed.

The $7,122.50 for the bathroom came from the Department of the Interior’s National Parks Service.

A section of the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act of 1965 restricts what can be done with property that was developed with that type of money, said Kate Flavin, the county’s public information officer.

“This means the property where JRBR sits cannot be sold without a conversion,” she said.

A conversion would allow the property to be used differently. Flavin said that would be a lengthy process that would require approval from Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke.

She said the county hasn’t formally reached out to the state or federal government about a conversion.

‘Strings attached’

Sedgwick County recently realized the restriction on parkland also applies to the boys ranch property, according to county officials.

“Someone in our legal department discovered this and brought it back to us as a ‘You’re not going to believe what we found,’ ” Commissioner Jim Howell said.

That happened after the county issued requests for proposals in August 2014, March 2016 and July 2016 to sell or lease the property.

“We didn’t know about the encumberment at that time,” Howell said.

Commissioner David Dennis said he was glad the county’s legal staff discovered the boys ranch property was restricted.

“If we would have sold it without finding this … we would have been at fault (legally),” he said.

‘Value to the community’

Commission Chairman Dave Unruh thinks it’s reasonable to turn the property back into parkland. He said the property’s restriction moved the commission toward demolition “essentially after the fact.”

“I’ve been convinced for quite some time that it would cost too much to make that facility viable,” he said.

But Commissioner Richard Ranzau said he still hoped the boys ranch property could find a second life. Ranzau said the bathroom project is pushing the county toward tearing the buildings down rather than finding another use for it.

“It’s incredibly frustrating. This is an example of the strings that can be attached to receiving federal money,” he added. “It just defies logic. It’s one of those things that people see the federal government doing and makes you shake your head.”

The county rejected all responses from its two requests last year.

Christian nonprofit Union Rescue Mission responded to both requests, saying the property could be a rural campus for residential rehabilitation programs to combat homelessness and substance abuse.

“The isolated, rural locale … provides an environment devoid of the urban temptations and unhealthy habits that can present obstacles to lasting change,” according to one of its proposals last September to buy the ranch for $50,000.

Youth Horizons responded to the latter request, saying the property could be used for residential or recreational programs for at-risk youths. It wanted the county to donate the main 24-acre ranch property before it bought the surrounding land at $1,000 per acre.

Howell said he has reached out to the office of U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran about a federal waiver to the restriction, potentially allowing the county try to lease or sell the property to nonprofits again.

“We need to explore that idea (and) let it run its course,” Howell said. “Let’s roll that around a little bit, because there may be a good value to the community.”

Daniel Salazar: 316-269-6791, @imdanielsalazar