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Lawrence homeowners fighting to build fire access road, citing ‘clear and present danger’

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Post updated at 12:29 p.m. Friday, Dec. 2:

When Chris Sanders and Amanda Unruh bought their Lawrence home five years ago, they knew their historic property would need myriad renovations and repairs. They never imagined the long odyssey that would unfold in their quest to protect their family and home.

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The parents of two young children, the couple wouldn’t move into the nearly century-old, two-story home until a smoke detection system had been installed. In 2017, the family settled into their house with that new system, designed to automatically notify authorities when smoke or fire was detected.

After a cooking mishap triggered the alarm the first time, the couple learned their 10-foot-wide gravel driveway didn’t meet the city’s requirements for a fire access road. First responders instead left their truck at the bottom of their driveway and trudged the 110-yard winding uphill path to their front door.

“So if you burn toast, here they come,” Sanders said. “We had it trigger four times, and four times they walked up.”

Sanders and Unruh, married 17 years, subsequently learned city requirements for a fire access road to their abode included a 20-foot-wide, all-weather surface that could support 40 tons. In addition, the National Fire Code requires a ladder truck that can reach the home’s front door, an aerial ladder with outriggers, and adequate space to turn around and leave at a call’s conclusion.

Tricia Masenthin/Lawrence Times The driveway to 1515 W. Seventh St.

Meanwhile, additional obstacles impede the family’s ability to consistently receive police response calls, deliveries, visitors, and city services such as curbside pickup of trash, recycling and yard waste.

First, there’s the home’s address: 1515 W. Seventh St. Because the home can’t be accessed from Seventh Street where the property’s north boundaries lie, confused first-time visitors – including the reporter of this article – often end up at a neighbor’s home instead.

To access the driveway, visitors first must locate the intersection of West Seventh Street and Lynch Court. From there, they head south past the Hawks Pointe I apartments sign and westward into the parking lot.

On the west side of the pavement, a crooked mailbox and signs call attention to a private, narrow driveway with trees hovering next to a beaten path.

That’s the Sanders’ driveway: a Seventh Street address located amid an apartment complex parking lot on a street called Lynch Court.

Working toward a ‘workable resolution’

A notebook the couple compiled logs the correspondence and proposed renderings in their pursuit of what they call a “workable resolution” with the city.

They estimate they’ve spent more than $15,000 on attorneys, engineering studies and survey work. And, they said, they’ve also expended an inordinate amount of time and emotional energy trying to fix the problem.

They acknowledge their privilege and recognize not all residents have the same resources to navigate and challenge the system.

“What do other people do when they struggle like this?” Sanders asked.

Built in 1926, the couple’s 5,500-square-foot home once hosted the Prospect Park Sanitarium, a home for the elderly. A fire destroyed the business’s previous Atchison location, according to a 1950 article in the Lawrence Daily Journal-World. In a twist of irony, the owner chose to move the business to Lawrence after the city of Atchison couldn’t secure fire protection for a rebuild.

A decade later, when the home changed ownership again, a newspaper article noted upcoming renovations were in order, including a fire detection upgrade.

In 1955, the city annexed the land where Hawks Pointe eventually would be built. When the land was later platted for apartments, the home’s previous driveway on Seventh Street was eliminated. In doing so, the city, albeit unintentionally, “created an island” that would eventually become his property, Sanders said, but neglected to provide the means for the required emergency vehicles to enter and exit.

August Rudisell/Lawrence Times A drone photo captures the home of Chris Sanders and Amanda Unruh, just south of Seventh Street in Lawrence on Nov. 27, 2022.

From safety concerns to property rights

In October, Sanders and Unruh appealed the city’s most recent denial for a right of way permit to establish access adjacent to their neighbor’s property to the west. The plan proposed a frontage road within the city’s right of way that would provide a link between Seventh Street and the couple’s home.

That denial said the city’s Driveway Review Committee had determined the project didn’t qualify for a variance, and the city found the proposed driveway would “destroy, damage, or impair the use of the public right of way of the adjacent neighboring property” and impact utilities within.

Sanders, however, said no underground utilities were located within the city’s right of way — a steep hill currently covered by a dense thicket of tangled autumn colors. The only above-ground utility presence is Evergy’s electrical poles, and renderings show they wouldn’t be affected by the proposed plan.

Furthermore, Sanders said, he and Unruh have committed to working with their neighbors to the west, Burke Griggs and Emily Hill, so the access road would have the least possible impact on their property. Griggs and Hill are listed as sponsors of a written petition urging Lawrence city commissioners to reverse the denials and adopt “a unique approach to resolving the problem.”

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The Sanders property is zoned as a multi-dwelling residential district that allows up to 12 units per acre. In the interest of transparency, Sanders said, he’s told neighbors if the access road and a new driveway on Seventh Street were to come to fruition, he and Unruh would pursue a restriction on their property going forward as a way to preserve the character of the family’s home atop the hill.

“They don’t want apartments here,” Sanders said. “And we want to live here.”

Sanders, a local business owner, can’t predict whether his children will grow up in the home in which he and Unruh had originally planned to live out their lives.

The house needs a lot of work, and the to-do list keeps growing as the family waits in limbo. As cracks creep up the interior walls and the front steps crumble, the couple hesitates to embark on certain projects for fear they won’t be able to complete them.

“Our problem is, we don’t have a future (here) without resolving the driveway issue,” Sanders said.

The couple said they knew the driveway was a problem when they purchased the house but didn’t realize the extent.

“We didn’t know that the fire truck wasn’t gonna come up,” Unruh said. “We didn’t know that the police wouldn’t be able to find us.”

Sanders added: “We didn’t know that we needed a fire access road.”

Emails provided by Sanders show Chris King, Fire Prevention Division Chief for Lawrence-Douglas County Fire and Medical, in support of a fire access road approaching from West Seventh and Wisconsin streets.

1515-W-7th-Street-Access-Summary-compressed

“In fairness to the fire department, I think the fire department has gone above and beyond in both engaging with us,” Sanders said. “They came on site. We talked about the windingness of the fire hose, and when you turn it on it wants to go straight, and I said, ‘You can fix that with a dry standpipe.’ So that is a pipe that is not filled with water, but they can just hook to it and they don’t have to put that big hose together.”

A smaller truck did make a successful test run up the hill on one occasion, Sanders said.

“But I can tell you right now, that was a nice day. There wasn’t a lot of moisture. That’s not the ladder truck, which is what they require,” he said. “If we put a foot of snow on the ground, or you have ice, I don’t believe even that truck would make it up here.”

Fighting City Hall

Sanders said he doesn’t blame current staff at City Hall for creating the problems, but he questions their willingness to address the issues in a reasonable manner, especially when his family’s safety is at issue and the neighbors potentially affected by the proposal have voiced no objections. He’s frustrated by what he considers bureaucratic control.

“This is a unique situation, but it hasn’t garnered any uniqueness from the city,” Sanders said.

Tricia Masenthin/Lawrence Times Chris Sanders and Amanda Unruh

Letters from City Engineer David P. Cronin and Program Administrator Steven Hallstrom dating back to August 2021 show multiple denials for a variance of a right of way permit. Without explanation, a September denial citing a traffic safety hazard within the plan was rescinded and replaced in October with another denial that omitted the aforementioned traffic concerns. Sanders said that interaction occurred after he and others started asking questions.

In an Oct. 25 letter, the couple’s attorney, John L. Hampton, tells Director of Municipal Services and Operations Melissa Sieben his clients face a “clear and present danger.” Hampton writes the two denials issued by the city in 2022 are “equally vague” and don’t “appear to be based on any objective findings.”

Among several legal arguments, Hampton writes, the city owes the property owners access to Seventh Street, and the city has previously granted use of the public right of way in commercial situations.

Sanders offered up as frontage road examples the DCCCA building at Clinton Parkway and Kasold Drive, Bishop Seabury Academy and the former Sallie Mae, now DST, building on Bluffs Drive, just north of his home.

“Bluffs Drive, as you pull up, is nonadjacent,” Sanders said. “The city does this. They haven’t done it for a residence that I know of, but they do it.”

Sanders said previous suggestions by the city weren’t viable. Those included changing the home’s street to a Lynch Court address and the resurfacing and widening of the family’s existing driveway.

An address change, Sanders said, wouldn’t solve the confusion people experience in locating a house within an apartment complex.

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Sanders said the steep grade and condition of the existing driveway combined with the utilities located beneath and a historic rock wall on the property’s south side make placement of the driveway on the north side of the property off of Seventh Street the only feasible solution.

“For far too long the Sanders(es) have been attempting to correct the dangerous conditions they find themselves in, and after reaching out to the city for assistance, have been continually denied,” Hampton wrote in the couple’s appeal. “The problem is, if the situation is not corrected, it is no longer possible or safe to continue using their property for a private residence.”

When asked if that meant the family would sue the city and pursue condemnation of the property should they lose their appeal, Sanders responded, “The appeal has what the appeal has in it.”

The Sanders family and their supporters continue posting signs promoting their petitions and knocking doors for signatures. The couple will present those petitions to the Lawrence City Commission during their appeal hearing at the commission meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 13.

Porter Arneill, city spokesperson, confirmed via email Monday that commissioners could take action on the appeal during the meeting. Arneill said agendas and materials would be posted on the city’s website by 5 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 8.

When given the opportunity to comment, Arneill did not provide any additional response about the appeal.

For more information, visit Sanders and Unruh’s website, drivewayssavelives.com.

Update, 12:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 2: Arneill said in a follow-up email that the appeal of this petition had been rescheduled for the commission’s Tuesday, Jan. 3 meeting.

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Tricia Masenthin (she/her), equity reporter, can be reached at tmasenthin (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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