BY ROB ROBERTS
SUN STAFF WRITER
Bob Phillips heard recently that a city councilman had referred to him as “the most dangerous man in Overland Park.”
Phillips earned the moniker - a dubious distinction or proud honor, depending on whom you ask - as one of the founders of the Johnson County South Coalition, a network of area residents that Phillips keeps alerted to upcoming development battles via his Web site, www.nbrhd.net.
Phillips, an online mapping specialist for Sprint, launched the Web site in 1998 as a means of spreading information on a variety of topics, some as innocuous as gardening. But since then, the Web site and the Johnson County South Coalition have been credited for their roles in defeating one big-box retail proposal at the southeast corner of 159th and Metcalf, delaying another at the northwest corner of the same intersection and, most recently, getting two pro-neighborhood candidates elected to the Overland Park City Council.
Phillips, however, can’t take full credit for those events. Because you know what they say - behind every dangerous man there’s a dangerous woman. And that woman, in this case, is Bob’s wife, Shirley Phillips.
A dangerous woman
Bob, who also credits dozens of other fellow activists associated with the Johnson County South Coalition, witnessed plenty of campus activism while working on his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mathematics at the University of California at Berkeley. But he was never well-acquainted with a real-life activist before placing a personal ad in a 1986 issue of the Washingtonian magazine and meeting Shirley.
Bob, who was working for the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation at the time, had tried just about everything to find Ms. Right before turning to the Washington, D.C., magazine one of his sisters used to edit. And to hedge his latest bet, he read up on how to word his personal.
“The article I read said to be honest,” Bob recalled. “So I started mine out ‘blonde, balding and bearded.’”
As it happened, Shirley, who was working for the Defense Department at the time, came across the ad during her own search for Mr. Right.
“It was just so off the wall, so I answered the ad,” said Shirley, who was also impressed by the claim that Bob loved hiking and one of her favorite books, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”
Bob was thrilled when Shirley answered his ad and agreed to a date the following Sunday. “But then she calls me back on that Saturday evening and says, ‘Oh, I have to go to a pesticide conference on Sunday,” he recalled.
Initially, Bob thought Shirley
might have had second thoughts and made up a wild story to get herself off the hook. But Shirley, an avid organic gardener, convinced him she really did have a prior engagement with a citizens’ advocacy group on pesticides. And three months later, they were married.
By then, the Phillipses were both in their late 30s. But Shirley had already been an activist for nearly two decades.
In the early 1970s, she explained, she became the key activist in a fight to stop the Army Corps of Engineers from building three lakes in southern Illinois - one of which would have wiped out her family’s farm near Mt. Vernon, Ill.
“The Corps of Engineers had built Rend Lake, which is nearly 20,000 acres of water, in southern Illinois,” Shirley recalled. “Then they turned around a short time later and said, ‘We’ve got to have three more lakes,’ including a 3,000 acre lake that would have put my dad’s farm under water. That would have destroyed my father, because that farm was like a seventh child to him.”
Thus, she started doing what she continues to do today to fight unwanted developments. She
collected reams of plans, and she
started building coalitions. And in the process, she discovered that the corps was “lying.”
“There’s no other way to put it,” she said, explaining that nothing in the plans she reviewed backed up the corps’ claims that the lakes were needed for water supply.
“The reason this project was so difficult to oppose,” Shirley added, “was that its chief proponent was Kenny Gray, who was chairman of the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee. This was his pet project to bring more construction and money into southern Illinois, and here I was, this naive 19-or 20-year-old going up against him.”
Defeating the project took three years, Shirley said, and in that time her networking ability grew to the point where she could summon a crowd of at least 600 opponents to any public hearing on the project. Eventually, Rep. Gray was influenced by those numbers and announced, “If you people really don’t want this, then I’m not supporting it anymore.”
Subsequently, Shirley earned bachelor’s and master's degrees in education from Southern Illinois University and a master’s in library science from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Today, she works as a faculty member at the University of Missouri at Kansas City and an academic reference librarian at Miller-Nichols Library. And she and Bob reside in the Blue Valley Paddock subdivision, which is located a stone’s throw from the controversial 159th and Metcalf intersection in an unincorporated portion of Johnson County.
No, they don’t live in Overland Park the couple tell officials who challenge their standing to protest events there, but their subdivision is surrounded on three sides by the city.
The Phillipses moved to this area after Bob landed a job with Sprint in 1993, and they moved to their current home in 1995 because it was set in a quiet neighborhood.
“We checked out everything before moving here,” Shirley recalled. “We really did look at the master plan, like everyone’s advised to do. And we found out that they were just in the process of rezoning that northwest corner (of 159th and Metcalf) where WalMart is at. Everyone said it was going to be neighborhood shops, which no one had any problem with.”
Bob said he made sure the couple’s new Johnson County home was located in the middle of a section, as far away from arterial roads as possible. He also liked the fact that the home backed up to a quiet county park
Little did the couple know that they would have to work so hard to protect their domestic tranquility.
Their first battle as southern Johnson County homeowners, against two separate attempts to include their neighborhood in a sewer district, spanned three
years, from 1995 to ‘98.
“It was going to cost big bucks per home,” Bob said of the county sewer proposal. “So we got together with the Blue Valley Riding neighborhood association. Four or five neighbors called and went to every single house. And we got all the details from the county sewer people.”
A wastewater engineer told the Phillipses that he thought their area would benefit from sewers and predicted a survey of the area would achieve a 40 percent response rate with a majority of respondents in favor of the sewers.
As a result of the neighbors’ efforts, however, “they got a 90 percent response rate, and 90 percent said they didn’t want sewers,” Bob said. “And two years later, a different proposal got the same result.”
The next battle the Phillipses fought resulted in the baffling of a noisy ventilation system at Blue Valley High School. The ventilation system, added in 1995 “sounded like 1-435 was in our back yards,” Bob said. So the Phillipses again gathered information and formed a coalition.
According to Shirley, Blue Valley Schools Superintendent David Benson later told them he hadn’t planned on doing anything about problem after she and Bob had approached him. But after hearing from a homes association and the citizens’ coalition they had formed, the superintendent changed his tune.
“So after two years, the school district was ultimately reasonable,” Shirley added, “and it only cost them a few thousand bucks to put in a few baffles.”
A year later in 1998. the Phillipses said, neighbors were successful in heading off rezoning of the 300-acre Merrill tract on the west side of U.S. 69 between 151st and 159th streets.
Bring on Wal-Mart
Then, having cut their teeth on several small battles, the Phillipses found themselves in the midst of a major campaign to block the 24-hour Wal-Mart Supercenter at the northwest corner of 159th and Metcalf.
The Phillipses and dozens of others living close to the site argued that the Supercenter, unlike a neighborhood shopping center previously approved with their blessing, conflicted with the character of the surrounding neighborhoods and would bring excessive traffic to the area.
Not trusting a majority of the Overland Park City Council to
agree, Shirley led a protest-petition drive against the Supercenter, forcing a nine-vote supermajority for City Council approval of the 237,000-square-foot store. Thus, a 7-3 vote in favor of the Supercenter in February 2001 resulted in rejection of the project.
Unfortunately, the Phillipses said, an identical 7-3 vote resulted in approval for a scaled-back version of the Supercenter in November2001.
That time, they explained, a petition drive fell just short after some homeowners in the Steck Plantation subdivision were convinced by a development consultant that a Wal-Mart across the street would lead to purchase of their properties at lofty commercial prices.
“They were told, ‘If you don’t sign the petition, you’ll get $500,000 an acre,’” Bob said.
But thus far, all options secured in Steck Plantation have been for $230,000 an acre or less, he added, and there’s no telling whether the City Council will rezone the residential area or not - an uncertainty that has left many Steck Plantation homeowners on edge.
While the Phillipses were unable to head off that situation or the Wal-Mart Supercenter now emerging from the corner near their home, Shirley emerged from the Wal-Mart flap as the Johnson County South Coalition’s protest-petition queen.
Shirley, who now advises residents throughout the Kansas City area on the petition process, drafted the language for the initial WalMart petition, Bob said. And from her research she knew exactly how many signatures it would take to validate the petition.
Because the Wal-Mart site was on the border with unincorporated Johnson County the couple explained, the protest area included all property within 200 feet on the city side and all property within 1,000 feet on the county side. Signatures representing the ownership of 20 percent of that area were required for validation, Bob said, and Shirley and the other volunteers who passed the petition got about 20.7 percent.
A key petition
A subsequent petition drive led by Shirley was key last year in defeating a proposal that called for two big-box retail stores and eight pad sites on a site
zoned “transitional residential” at the southeast corner of 159thand Metcalf.
The developers “were not even looking at compromise, not even talking to the homes associations,” Shirley recalled. “They just put forth this monstrous plan for the biggest shopping center in unincorporated Johnson County, and their logic was, ‘Wal-Mart’s across the street; we deserve to be here too.'”
The project made it to the Board of County Commissioners last December with a recommendation for denial from the Oxford Township zoning board and Overland Park’s planning staff. And since a valid protest petition had been filed, the project required a 4-1 vote of the commissioners for passage.
“We got down to this final vote,” Bob said, “and we knew the three guys on the commission were pro-development. Annabeth Surbaugh had committed to vote against the project, so they needed
Susie Wolf for that fourth vote.”
Surbaugh started the voting by motioning for the project to be denied, Bob continued, but that motion required three votes and mustered only two - Surbaugh’s and Wolf’s.
The motion was successful, however, in divulging Wolf’s previously well-guarded position on the development. Thus, Surbaugh made a subsequent motion - to approve the development.
Commissioner Doug Wood “just turned red and yelled at her,” Bob said. “He said, ‘You’re just doing that as a tactic.’ But Susie Wolf seconded the motion, and then there was a 3-2 vote in favor of the project But because of the protest petition, the developers
lost and can’t bring it back for at least a year.”
Wolf would later say that she was lobbied more intensely on that issue than any other during her service on the commission - a fact that the Johnson County South Coalition
and www.nbrhd.net, no doubt, had something to do with.
The primary goal of both institutions is to prevent neighbors, who are generally at a disadvantage in development battles, from continually reinventing the wheel, the Phillipses said.
But since early this year, they added, the coalition and Web site
have had an important secondary goal - to get neighborhood-minded candidates elected to Overland Park City Council positions. And on April 1, coalition members celebrated the elections of John Thompson to a Ward 5 seat and Dan Carbery to a seat in the city’s newly created Ward 6.
The Phillipses credited coalition members Jim Riggs and Michaela Brady with the concept - piloted successfully in Ward 6 this year - of neighbors organizing their own candidate forums and then unifying behind the candidate deemed most neighborhood-friendly.
Byron Loudon, who retired from his Ward 4 City Council seat just prior to Thompson and Carbery’s swearing in Monday, said he didn’t approve of neighbors
“trying to extract promises from candidates to do whatever they say.”
“It used to be that you were a council member for the city first, and secondarily for your ward,” Loudon said. “We need to revert back to that, because over the past five to 10 years we’ve seen a gravitation toward more of a provincial attitude, where council members say, ‘I’m going to vote only for what the vocal constituents in my ward want.’”
In the past, Loudon added, constituent concerns have led to better projects through compromise. But he said the Phillipses seem to believe that “if they oppose something it ought to be totally denied, and I’m not sure that’s always the best situation for the entire city.”
Coalition member Wendy Crosby has a different view.
“Bob and Shirley are tireless in their efforts to promote responsible and appropriate development for Overland Park and Johnson County” she said. “After the continuing battle against Wal-Mart failed due to developers targeting Steck Plantation residents regarding the value of their property, the tactics Bob and Shirley employed shifted to change the makeup of the Overland Park City Council.
“Without their energy and ability to motivate the troops through e-mail lists, Web sites, one-on-one discussions with voters and end-less walking to distribute fliers, I truly believe the elections of Dan Carbery and John Thompson would be pipe dreams.
“Johnson County is lucky to have (the Phillipses) working for residents.”
Michaela Brady, who helped guide a coalition of neighborhoods opposed to auto malls along 135th Street in Overland Park a few years ago, agreed.
“I have always believed that Bob’s service to the residents of Overland Park is based on his willingness to maintain a central clearinghouse of information over the Internet,” she said. “He is the embodiment of the ‘backyard fence for everyone who reads the nbrhd.net. Residents trust it because it is their own.
“Bob is the big picture man, and Shirley minds the details. When there is need for research, Shirley does that research and reports on it. I have yet to find even a minute error.”
Meanwhile, the “dangerous” Phillipses try to give most of the credit to each other.
Shirley points out that the Web site Bob created and spends countless hours updating recently recorded its 50,000th hit.
“Bob doesn’t smoke, drink or carouse,” his wife added. “His Web site is his only vice.”
“Shirley’s the incredible one,” Bob added. “She’s gone over all the ordinances for Overland Park and Johnson County. And it’s amazing to watch her on the Internet. I’ll go to Google and type something in, and that’s about the extent of my research. Shirley goes in and accesses all these databases no one’s ever heard of.”