Brenda Satterlee's house rests on almost three acres in an ideal setting in Prairie Village. She's close to some of the suburb's better-known shops and amenities.
She's also near the former Mission Valley Middle School. And that's why she and her husband, Craig, might sell their house. "Even if we lose our shirts," Satterlee tells The Pitch.
Satterlee's home is a few hundred feet south of the now-vacant middle school at 8500 Mission. The Shawnee Mission School District board voted in 2010 to close Mission Valley as part of a large belt-tightening maneuver. The district had spent the recession like many others: grappling with declining state aid and stagnant or dropping property valuations.
In 2011, the school board approved the sale of the school building and its ample surrounding fields to MVS LLC, an entity held by Kansas City's Tutera Group, for $4.3 million. (The property appraised at $3.2 million in 2012, according to Johnson County land records.)
Since then, the Tutera Group has fanned out into the community with a handful of meetings in an effort to win over Prairie Village residents with a proposal to turn the former school into a sprawling, 18-acre senior-living community called Mission Chateau. If approved, it would become one of Johnson County's biggest development projects this year.
Despite meetings put on by Tutera, named for the well-heeled Kansas City family that runs the company and other business enterprises, Satterlee isn't likely to change her mind.
That's because while Tutera has made some changes from the original design of the project, it's fundamentally different from what Satterlee and some of her neighbors think is appropriate for the site.
"We're a very low-density neighborhood," she says. "To cram this kind of facility is just ..." Her voice trails off in half-resigned frustration.
Joe Tutera, CEO of the Tutera Group, says he has tried to keep up with demands from concerned neighbors such as Satterlee and an ad hoc neighborhood group that has formed to oppose his project. He says retail, originally considered a possibility to adjoin the senior-living facility, was eventually left out of the proposal by the Tutera Group. He thought that would assuage concerns, but he was surprised when it turned out that Chateau opponents don't want the senior-living community, either.
"The Mission Valley opposition came out in full force with 'no retail' signs," Tutera says. "It wasn't until such time that we proceeded to make public, or get with the city and get the guidelines and started preliminary meetings with staff that we're going senior living ... it wasn't until we literally announced that, that all of a sudden there was a big concern that senior living would be a disaster."
Still, Tutera thinks its only a "very small isolated group" that opposes his plan.
Some of that group showed up to an April 25 neighborhood meeting in the cafeteria of Prairie Elementary School to learn more about Mission Chateau.
The Satterlees were among 40 people who listened to jocular John Petersen, a fixture in the Polsinelli law firm's real-estate practice who is frequently called upon by clients to help smooth over development projects both controversial and routine. This puts him in front of neighborhood meetings like the one April 25, as well as before various city councils in Johnson County.
That night, he spoke on behalf of the Tutera Group with Tutera himself looking on and occasionally speaking up for his project.
About an hour into Petersen's swashbuckling, Satterlee seemed to have had enough.
"We are very unhappy," she told Petersen after a night of peppering him with questions. "We wanted to work with you."
Satterlee tells The Pitch that the main issue she has with the project is its density. The plan seeks to replace the 100,000-square-foot middle school, and its surrounding soccer fields and the like, with 387,244 square feet of senior-care center. Along the boundary of the development are residences, many of them single-family homes.
For perspective, Mission Chateau would be larger than the 253,000-square-foot, 10-story office building under construction for Petersen's Polsinelli firm near the County Club Plaza.
But Mission Chateau's footprint won't be slim and vertical. Instead, it will be spread across a large, three-story building incorporating living space, a separate "skilled nursing and memory care" center and six so-called villas (sort of like duplexes for seniors). Roughly 360 residents would live there at any one time.
The Satterlees and others at the meeting say they're not against development. But why, for example, couldn't the proposal be all villas?
Tutera says there's not a market for stand-alone senior villas.
"The draw to the villas is the access to the services here," Tutera says. He points to a map of the independent living and nursing facilities that would replace the old middle school.
Construction is another matter for neighbors, with the project estimated to take as long as two and a half years to fully build out.
And while Petersen spent much of the meeting telling the crowd that the Tutera Group had changed the plan to accommodate some concerns, Tutera says that senior-living communities are what he does.
"That's the one thing we can never change," he says.
This is the biggest parcel we've dealt with in a long time," says Dennis Enslinger, Prairie Village's assistant city administrator, who has attended many of the community meetings for the $50 million Mission Chateau plan.
Unlike nearby Somerset Elementary, which was mostly closed for a number of years before becoming an assisted-living facility, Mission Valley Middle School announced its impending closure and subsequent sell-off in relatively short order.
Mission Valley closed at the end of the 2011 school year, about half a year after the board voted to close it.
Prairie Village's comprehensive plan — a kind of a guide for how development should unfold over a given period — hadn't anticipated the possibility of the school's closing. But enrollment had dropped to about half the capacity for the school, prompting district administrators to put the building on its endangered list.
Ron Shaffer, mayor of Prairie Village, acknowledges an emotional connection between the city and its schools. "Schools are very important to us in Prairie Village and to our citizens," he tells The Pitch.
Shaffer says the law obliges him not to publicly state his opinion on the project until it has been formally presented to the City Council. That won't happen until this summer; it might be as late as August before the plan moves through at least a pair of Prairie Village Planning Commission meetings and is ready for prime time before the council.
The Tutera Group has a few advantages so far. For one, the current zoning on the property, while designated as single-family residential, allows for special-use permits for things like senior-living communities.
The City Council will make its ultimate decision based on a recommendation from the Planning Commission, which will scope the project for technicalities such as setbacks and codes. Neither body, though, audits the developer.
"We don't vet them, but we're aware of Tutera's history and that they have been successful in this type of project across the United States," Shaffer says.
Brian Lee, a nursing-home watchdog, says the Tutera Group's record isn't all success.
"We see a track record here, and it's a mixed track record," says Lee, executive director of Families for Better Care, in Tallahassee, Florida. "It's not the best and it's not the worst, either. I think it's leaning toward not good. You have [among Tutera's holdings] a number of facilities that are below average."
Lee had firsthand experience with Tutera-owned nursing facilities in central Illinois where he worked as an ombudsman. (The Tutera Group owns eight facilities in Illinois.) Nursing represents 25 percent of Mission Chateau.
Lee was hired in 2003 as the state ombudsman for nursing homes in Florida, a role that, as an advocate for residents' rights, caused him no small amount of friction with the nursing-home industry in the Sunshine State.
He was pressured to resign on February 7, 2011, lest he be fired by Florida Gov. Rick Scott, according to a March 10, 2011, Orlando Sentinel article.
Federal and state laws forbid the imposition of political pressure on ombudsmen. That same Sentinel story also reports that the Administration on Aging (in the Department of Health and Human Services) launched an investigation into the circumstances of Lee's resignation.
Underpinning Lee's assertions about the Tutera Group are records of inspections conducted by Centers for Medicare and Medicaid services, regulators of nursing homes because the federal program is the preferred insurer for senior citizens.
The Pitch reviewed hundreds of records for Tutera-owned properties and found varying results.
Some facilities score quite well, others squarely in the middle. Others, though, bear low marks. In some cases, the Tutera Group has been fined, or Medicare payments have been denied.
Joe Tutera says some of the low ratings can be ascribed to having taken over distressed facilities from struggling previous owners. Others, he says, are facilities that, because they deal in specialized care, can attract low scores based on Medicare's rating rubric.
"We end up with a certain portion of our portfolio that we end up operating that we're digging out of the depth of troubles, and they're in very distressed environments," Tutera says. He adds that his company has been a caretaker for more than 250 facilities, called upon by state regulators or in legal proceedings to act as a receiver for the property.
Some of those the Tutera Group acquires, making the facility part of the company's portfolio.
"Predominantly, we have developed an area of expertise of taking over tough facilities," he says. "We're the guys somebody would call right before a facility is about to get shut down by the state."
A few of the low-scoring nursing homes in Tutera's ownership portfolio are properties that the company has had for 10 years or longer, according to company records supplied to The Pitch.
The Pines Rehabilitation & Health Care Center in Lansing, Michigan, was taken over in receivership by the Tutera Group in 1993. In its most recent inspection, Pines scored one star for health inspections — ratings garnered from inspections of the facility itself — and two stars overall. (Medicare uses a five-star system to rate nursing-home facilities; one star designates "much below average" and five indicates "much above average.")
In 2011, Medicare fined Pines $101,335. Records also show a denial of Medicare payment on March 30, 2012. (Medicare records do not list what triggered the fines or payment denials.)
"That means the care was pretty bad, when I see $100,000 in fines." Lee says.
A Medicare survey dated August 5, 2011, describes how a Pines resident, whose name and medical condition are redacted, died after facility staff waited nearly eight hours to call for emergency medical treatment following "an acute change of condition."
"These deficient practices place all 110 residents at risk for serious harm, injury and/or death," that 2011 survey says.
The Tutera Group disputes Medicare's report on the death, insisting that the patient had been looked after by facility staff, her doctor and the local hospital. Privacy laws, the company says, prevent it from sharing more information.
The Tutera Group says deficiencies cited by Medicare at the Pines were later cleared, and that the facility serves a "specialized complex care population" in Lansing.
In all, 10 of the 23 nursing homes listed in the Tutera portfolio have current Medicare ratings of two stars or fewer for health inspections.
"Those are the most independent, verifiable information because health inspection scores are coming directly from regulators," Lee says. (Other aspects of Medicare ratings, such as staffing and quality measures, depend in part on self-reported data.)
Still, the Tutera Group nursing facility portfolio's average number of deficiencies found by regulators is 15 percent fewer than the national average of 7.93 per facility, according to a report by the American Health Care Association.
But Tutera says Medicare scores alone don't reflect a complex business. For example, the Meridian Nursing & Rehabilitation Center in Wichita, which the Tutera Group took over from a distressed nonprofit in 2000, remains a low-scoring facility in some respects.
Tutera says that facility deals in specialized care, a type of practice that might not easily achieve high scores under Medicare's rating guidelines. "That facility takes care of a medically complex population, and it specializes in psychiatric care," he says. "It's a high-risk, fringe type of care facility where the resident population is constantly in transition."
Some of the facilities that the Tutera Group has taken over have worked their way into good standing, according to Medicare. In 2008, Tutera assumed control of the Carlinville Rehabilitation & Health Care Center in Carlinville, Illinois. Today, it scores well in Medicare's rating system.
Plaza Manor in Kansas City is one that Tutera developed, and it scores at or near the top.
"If you take any operator with enough product," Tutera says, "it's like, sure, you can look to an individual instance and find 'What about this deficiency or what about that deficiency?' "
Is now the right time for the Tutera Group to invest $50 million in a new senior-living community while it continues to turn around troubled facilities?
Tutera says yes. He adds that the company plans to pour $8 million into existing properties in its portfolio.
He tells The Pitch that Mission Chateau represents the company's "crown jewel" after involvement in more than 300 nursing, assisted or independent-living centers.
The Mission Valley Neighbors Association, a collection of Prairie Village residents opposed to Mission Chateau, doesn't want that crown jewel in its backyard.
In a statement to The Pitch, the association declares its opposition to Mission Chateau because of its "massive change in use" from when it was a school, its proximity to expensive homes in Prairie Village, the loss of green space and concerns about flooding.
"We are not anti-development," says the Mission Valley Neighbors Association in its statement. "We would be supportive of single-family residential that is compatible with the existing homes in the area. We would also be supportive of churches, schools or public parks."
While the Kansas City Christian School in Prairie Village, which is nearing capacity at its current location at 79th Street and Roe Avenue, had previously expressed interest in buying Mission Valley not long after the Tutera Group's MVS entity bought the building, Tutera plans to move ahead with his project.
He says he wants to win over all of Prairie Village's residents, but he knows he won't.
"Our mission and our goal is to provide senior housing in the community we serve," Tutera says. "That is my mission. To the extent that someone is not interested, well, I can't change that."