Council Grove lake view may cost more

Ed and Sandy Hooper of Wichita bought their dream vacation home in 2003.

The house is few yards from Council Grove City Lake, a place "where we can get together and have a great time," Ed Hopper said.

Now they don't know whether they will be able to afford the land beneath that home.

Council Grove, which owns the 434-acre lake and surrounding land, is proposing to increase lease rates about 400 percent in 2012. Annual hikes up to 15 percent could follow.

Homeowners now pay about $550 a year; that would jump to $2,400 under the current proposal.

If the maximum increases were imposed, that could cost homeowners $110,000 in rent over the life of the proposed 15-year lease.

"Unless this proposed lease undergoes major modifications, I'm willing to take a major financial beating and kiss this place goodbye," Ed Hooper said. "I'd be lucky to get half of what I spent on the property."

Others who own the 348 lake-side homes say a huge increase would make their homes unaffordable to keep and difficult to sell at greatly devalued prices.

The Council Grove City Council will set the fees in coming months. Homeowners and the lake association have no vote.

"Technically they can tell us to leave within 30 days and it looks like that's what they're trying to do," said lake resident Andy Hutter.

Homeowners will have a chance to voice opinions at a public meeting today at the Council Grove Community Recreation Building. The meeting begins at 5:30 p.m.

"This is a document (the city) has been working on for quite a while," Council Grove City Administrator Danny Matthews said of the proposed fee increase. "Now it's open to the public to voice their concerns. It will be up to the council to consider any changes to be made."

Council Grove Mayor Cynthia Engel said, "I really have no comment because it's in the preliminary stages and... the intent is for it to be an informational meeting."

Hutter is disappointed the relationship between the city and homeowners has become so strained.

He said he has owned land at the lake, built in the 1940s to supply water for Council Grove, for about 40 years.

Soon after it was built, the city started leasing land around the lake for small fishing cabins. He said interest in the lake grew because of the area's scenic beauty and because it was close to the larger Council Grove Reservoir.

Homeowners also had the ability to build homes a few feet from the water and own private boat docks. Neither are allowed on most state or federally owned lands in Kansas.

Now there are homes worth $300,000 or more around the lake, with owners from several states. Homeowner listings show about 80 of the homes are owned by people from the Wichita area. Hutter said 140 people live in houses year-round.

For decades the lake association and city cooperated on 15-year lease agreements. Ken Mulanax, lake association president, said they have been talking to city officials for several years about a lease beginning in 2012. Among other things they suggested were 99-year leases.

He said he didn't recognize the proposed lease announcement lake members received last week.

"It didn't look like they were negotiating in good faith," said Mulanax, of Derby.

Homeowner Cathie Hawley was also surprised by the huge increase. She and her husband, Kevin, from Salina, have had a vacation home by the lake for about four years.

"We signed on knowing (the city) owned the property, but with the precedence of the previous leases," she said. "This new lease is without precedence. There are a lot of people who feel like they've been slapped in the face."

Several homeowners predicted home values would drop more than 50 percent if the current proposal becomes law. Some homes, they say, may be abandoned.

Homeowners leaving could mean a loss of tax revenue for the area. Lake association board member Curt Brungardt said members pay about $850,000 annually in property taxes on their lake homes.

Sherri Wilkerson, owner of the Hays House restaurant, said lake house owners are an important part of the Council Grove economy. Anything that affects them, she said, affects many local businesses.

"The people at the lakes do a large bulk of our business in the summer," she said. "Honestly, many of the businesses count on their dollars in the summer to keep them alive in the winter."