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State Delays Land Purchases

State officials on Thursday put on hold the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism's purchases of two large parcels of land in northeast and southeast Kansas over concerns about the timing of the sales and lack of legislative input.

The state finance council delayed its decision after several legislators on the council said some of their colleagues questioned the purchases. The council includes top House and Senate leaders and Gov. Sam Brownback.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Marc Rhoades said a number of legislators had contacted him wondering why the state was buying more private land and why the decision was being pushed through so close to the start of the 2014 session in January.

"I appreciate that you aren't buying land left and right. But people got concerned about it and wanted to look at it closer," said Rhoades, a Newton Republican.

Wildlife, Parks and Tourism Secretary Robin Jennison said the purchases had been in the works for more than a year. He said the motive for action on one property was to complete the sale before an option placed on the land expired and could be sold to other bidders.

"We're trying to be as upfront as we can, but we're just trying to get land that we think is important," Jennison said.

That parcel is near Tuttle Creek Reservoir in Pottawatomie County and is adjacent to land already owned by the state. The state wants to acquire 484 acres near the department's Tuttle Creek Wildlife Area for $770,000. The state share of the cost is $152,500, with $40,000 coming from Pheasants Forever and the National Wild Turkey Federation. The remainder of the funds comes from the state's share of federal fees collected on the sale of hunting and fishing items.

"The primary purpose is to purchase habitat and area for hunters," Jennison said, adding that the land also would make it easier to access land the state already manages.

The second parcel is in Cherokee County near the Oklahoma border, also near land already owned by the state. It is 384 acres east of Oswego at a cost of $433,500 and is near an area that previously was mined for lead and zinc not far from the town of Treece that was part of an Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site. State health and environment officials, however, said the land is not contaminated and required no remediation.

Jennison said the state had already signed a contract to buy the land, subject to finance council approval. Delaying the formal approval won't jeopardize the sale.

Legislators said they will take up the land purchases soon after the 2014 session begins.