Florence council battling water-supply challenges

Time is ticking away on a 99-year water lease that was ratified in 1920 between the city of Florence, and initially another family, who in 1960 sold to the DeForest family with the lease continuing at $500 annually.

Due to expire in May 2019, the Florence City Council at its June 4 meeting decided as part of its negotiations with the DeForest family to raise the ante, prompting many of its citizens to wonder why a new contract wasn’t signed, and why “eminent domain” became part of the negotiations.

Introducing a matter for the rest of the members to consider, Councilor Matt Williams said, in a motion, he would like to remove all previous offers, and purchase the “city springs” for $40,000, adding $20,000 to that price to make the offer $60,000.

The $60,000 would be for the springs, the roadway and utility easements across that.

“With this,” he said, “let’s also supply seven business days for negotiations, acceptance or refusal, and upon the end of those seven days, move we automatically go into eminent domain process with our legal firm.”

Williams said that if in any communication the DeForest family needs more time, they can contact Mayor Bob Gayle and the council will grant three more days of executive power that he can extend.

The total number of days before proceeding with the second option would be 10 business days.

The council voted 3-1 to move forward on the issue. The one descending vote was by Councilor Trayce Warner.

Prior to Williams motion, the new contract being bantered about would be for a 10-year lease for a total cost of $60,000, in other words, $6,000 each year for 10 years, with three five-year renewable leases. But, the cost could be renegotiated. In December 2017, the council approved a contract with the DeForest family,

Mayor Bob Gayle said that the option to buy the land where the springs are located is 4.4 acres, which includes the access road.

“When anyone mentions eminent domain, some people have strong feelings about that,” he said. “Unfortunately, the public is so fired up, and the council has turned this over to its attorney who is trying to deal with the older brother, Charlie (DeForest), and their attorney.”

Gayle said in the meantime, a sister, Linda Long, is coming through the back door and stirring up public sentiment.

“At least one council member is not understanding what is going on,” Gayle said, “and there’s a lot of hurt feelings. Everybody is also scared to death we are going to lose city springs.”

The city, he added, is making a solid offer on the property, and the city of Florence has the vested right of the water on that property.

Citing historical data, Gayle said that in 1945, the Kansas Water Appropriation Act was changed, which happened when the lease was already 25 years in effect.

“The city fathers applied in 1946 for vested rights on that property,” Gayle said. “We leased access on the ground where the pump house is on, but the city owns the water right below it.”

By 1960, he said, the DeForest family bought that property, but the vested right to the water had been separated from the property 14 years before they bought it.

At the time the father, John DeForest, a rancher and real estate broker at the time, knew he had a lease because he was receiving lease payments from the city, but the vested water rights might not have come up in conversation with his children, he said.

The council’s decision to offer money for the property is still one of the negotiated items with lawyers and the DeForest family.

“A lot of people just don’t understand that when the council negotiates property, most of it is in executive session,” Gayle added.

Former mayor Mary Shipman said she just doesn’t understand why the city didn’t sign the contract with 60 days still available to them to ratify it.

“As mayor, this issue was discussed, but Charles DeForest didn’t want to work on it because it wasn’t due for a few years,” she said.

Also speaking at the meeting was former mayor Rodney Williams, she said, who for 10 minutes asked the council to sign the contract.

“They ignored him,” Shipman said. “Trayce opposed the motion because she said the state of Kansas will not give eminent domain since the city has offered a contract, but that didn’t seem to matter either.”

Another citizen, John Branson, asked the council to approve the contract, but that, too, fell on deaf ears, she said.

While the issue remains in negotiations, Gayle said he can’t say a lot more other than there is more to this than most people know, and he plans to have a town meeting soon and explain it all.

Mark Slater, Florence fire chief, said he doesn’t know where the council is going with this move.

“I don’t have much more to say, other than I know the public is also asking what are we going to do about the water,” he said.

In addition to many other high-dollar items the city is facing to include a new trash truck, the dike and cost of hiring an engineer to certify it, the water plant and water and sewer lines, the council plans to raise water rates and other utility costs.