Building a home in the country is easy, compared to the mounting difficulty of tapping into rural water district lines.
Rural Douglas County residents thirst for a stable, potable water source, the kind they've expected and gotten from the city of Lawrence and its water treatment facilities for two decades. The kind that three water districts say is becoming scarce.
City officials thirst for control over costly sprawl. They say they are willing to use their restrictions on rural water meters to squeeze the county into passing stricter planning guidelines.
County officials find themselves controlling the faucets. They can loosen the city's clamps on rural water meters only by tightening the planning guidelines for areas surrounding Lawrence.
And as the county's rural water districts approach limitations on the number of water meters they can sell, tempers about rural water are reaching the boiling point.
Representatives from each group say implications for residents inside and outside city limits flow between tax dollars, quality of life and public health.
Blackmail or compromise?
"The city knows very little about rural water districts," charges Talitha Bailey, office manager for Rural Water District No. 4.
The city's water treatment contracts dating to the mid-1970s govern new development in the rural areas, city officials say, arguing that without reliable water, the land becomes either unusable or difficult to sell.
Each water district has a water treatment contract with the city. In 1975, the city set a limit on the number of meters each district could sell. Upon reaching the limit, districts are allowed growing room of 1 percent a year. For some districts, 1 percent equals three meters.
District 2 reached its 350-meter limit last year. District 4, which has 39 meters left, has stopped selling them until the city and county determine a solution. Without a remedy, the contracts are binding until 2015.
"We average selling 20 to 25 meters a year," Mrs. Bailey said, and those meters aren't going to developers building unruly subdivisions.
"It's individuals who come out by themselves and buy a little piece of ground so they can live in the country," she said.
To mull the problem, city and county commissioners sat at the same table six weeks ago, and their study session defined the tone of negotiations.
City Commissioner Bob Moody said the county first needed to revisit development guidelines before the city even thought about increasing water meter limits. He said water districts should support agricultural customers, not suburban sprawl. Negotiations with the county could begin by month's end.
Some call the city's ploy blackmail.
"One side wants what the other side has," City Commissioner Bob Schulte said. "They want something we have. We want something they have. That's not blackmail. That's compromise."
County Commissioner Louie McElhaney wants to know exactly what the city wants.
"Nobody has had any conversations with me other than one member of the planning commission," McElhaney said. "I've just heard that the ball is in our court, but I haven't been able to find it."
Alan Miller, a Baldwin Realtor who has clients on the waiting list for water meters, said planning issues should remain separate. Limiting water meters isn't the answer, he said.
"If they want to control urban sprawl, that's not the way to do it."
Trickle-down development rules
Angry people packed public hearing rooms the last time county commissioners tinkered with what longtime residents call the 5-acre exemption.
When rural parents want their children to build a house on the farmstead, they want to do so without meeting a dizzying array of planning guidelines. As long as the children build on more than five acres, the county requires no plat.
City officials want the 5-acre exemption abolished for land adjacent to the city boundaries, where developments beyond the scope of family homesteads are popping up. Such a move would require platting -- and all the accompanying guidelines -- for any property being developed.
That way, city officials argue, when the city annexes the land, taxpayers won't have to foot the bill for road easements or water line construction.
Mark Buhler was the only county commissioner in February to support recommendations from the city-county planning office that would abolish the exemption in a set area around the city.
"If you and I are planning the five acres we own, and are planning it for the inevitable annexation into Lawrence, planning is in the best interest of everyone," he said. "The struggle for me is how you draw the line and what are the differences inside and outside."
County Commissioner Jim Chappell voted against the idea. He said the recommended area extended too far into the county. He would be willing to support getting rid of the exemption within a smaller area, but only if it meant getting more rural water meters from the city.
The way the city has used water meters as leverage irritated him, Chappell said.
"For some reason, the city has gotten it in their mind that we in the county aren't able to regulate growth," he said. " ... I also see this relationship between the city and county on planning issues deteriorating."
Moody said rural people and developers who oppose such planning guidelines were being unreasonable.
"They want unlimited growth. They don't want any cap," he said. "I'm sorry. I'm not going to go for that. Period."
Water and public health
Lost somewhere behind the debate about growth is the impetus behind rural water districts: to provide a safe, dependable water source. Moody said residents could dig wells to serve their rural homes.
However, many wells, including the county's drought relief wells, have fallen victim to bacteria, making them unusable for drinking water. Public health then becomes an issue. Rural water district lines deliver water treated at Clinton Water Treatment Plant.
Melanie Cromwell and her husband, Richard, are 45 days from completing their home off County Route 458. They have been waiting for a meter since the project began. She has lived in Douglas County for 25 years and has watched water policies develop.
"I'm appalled that the city wants people to go backwards in time and dig wells versus having rural water," she said.
Chappell said many residents have been forced to drill wells that may or may not pose health threats because of the city's reluctance to increase water meter limits.
"I don't see that as being responsible on their part," he said.
City Manager Mike Wildgen said he was willing to consider relaxing the meter restrictions to replace health-troubled wells with treated water hookups -- but only for generations-old county farmsteads.
People who move out there now -- into what he calls "suburban farmettes" -- should know what they're getting into, he said. And that means limiting expansion of rural water.
When it comes to renegotiating 20-year-old water treatment contracts, the debate indeed appears headed toward a boiling point.
Two districts already have stopped selling meters altogether, and have teamed with another district in considering the construction of their own treatment plant.
Representatives from all three districts last week told a Topeka engineering firm to proceed with a "feasibility study" for building a new plant, which would break the city's leverage.
"You are not going to stop people from building out in that area," McElhaney said. "They will overcome some large obstacles, and if that means creating their own water supply, they'll do it. What's going to hurt the city in this position is once (that happens), they're not going to have any control whatsoever."
Even Schulte agrees with that. Country-loving people will continue moving into unincorporated parts of the county, despite the city's current restrictions. And once the water meter limits go, so goes the city's influence on rural development.
A new plant would only make matters worse, Schulte said. To pay off the multimillion-dollar debt, rural water officials would sell as many meters as possible -- even to the point of recruiting people to move out of the city.
"That would be the worst thing that could happen," he said. "That's the opposite of what the city wants to see happen ... then we'd just have a truly uncontrolled situation in the county."