Perry A citizens group spun off by a single issue aims to take the lead in developing public policy in Jefferson County.
A group of Jefferson County residents hopes to channel the groundswell of activism that has enveloped two Kansas River sand-dredging proposals into ongoing community involvement.
``Our basic interest is in the creation of public policies that promote the development of economically viable and environmentally sustainable communities,'' said Wayne White, Oskaloosa.
White is a member of the steering committee for Citizens for the Future of Jefferson County, a newly organized coalition of neighbors that has scheduled a public meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday in Perry City Hall.
``I think for a lot of people, the Victory Sand & Gravel issue -- and subsequent to that the Penny issue -- was a wakeup call,'' he said.
Record numbers of Jefferson County residents have turned out to protest plans by Victory Sand and Gravel and Penny's Concrete to set up sand-dredging plants on the Kansas River. When those proposals, which are still pending, have been on the agenda, attendance at county commission and planning commission meetings has approached -- and some say topped -- 100.
``We've never had anything like that before,'' said Jefferson County Commission Chairman Bill Rhodes. ``We've never had anything even close to it.''
A symptom of a larger problem?
White said the county has no comprehensive planning policies and was unprepared to field the dredging proposals, which would touch so many aspects of life in Jefferson County.
Although environmental concerns top the list of objections, residents also have said they fear the impact of more heavy truck traffic on roads and the loss of river-bottom farmland to industry.
Jack Carson, president of Victory Sand & Gravel, has said he's prepared to address all of the opponents' concerns and believes his proposed dredging plant could coexist with its neighbors and the environment. He points to his company's plant in DeSoto, where Victory has invested significantly to improve roads and other infrastructure.
But for the community as a whole, White said, the issue may be less about sand-dredging than it is about defining community standards for orderly development. As Jefferson County continues to attract development because of its proximity to more urban counties, he said, the issues being discussed in conjunction with the sand-plant proposals are likely to be played out again and again.
Defining community values
For the most part, the county is zoned by conditional use permit with the Jefferson County Regional Planning Commission deciding about proposals for new development on a case-by-case basis.
``We understand the need for people who live in our community to make a living, but we also hope we can guide economic development so we can preserve some of the other values in our community,'' White said.
Those values grow from the mix of agricultural, suburban and small-town living.
``We feel we need a vision that will allow that kind of ecology and that kind of lifestyle to exist,'' White said.
``I think one aspect of a sustainable community is to preserve an active agricultural industry and to be aware of ways that other counties have lost that asset,'' said Mark Maher, another member of the group's steering committee.
``We also need really good schools, we need services available in the county, we need responsible government and we just generally need more employment opportunities from quality jobs,'' with a preference for locally grown businesses, White said.
Evaluating the problem
Rhodes, the county commission chairman, said he knew little about Citizens for the Future of Jefferson County and wondered whether the county really was threatened by haphazard industrial and commercial development.
The absence of infrastructure in Jefferson County and a shortage of water have kept a lot of commercial development at bay.
``Ordinarily we don't have any industry trying to come into Jefferson County,'' Rhodes said. ``We aren't out beating the bushes.''
But Rhodes concedes that there has been enough patchwork residential development in unincorporated Jefferson County to prompt an increase in the platting requirements.
Beginning this year, any development on 40 acres or less must be platted. That was intended, Rhodes said, to regulate the practice of chopping up farmland into home sites.
White said the sand-dredging plant issue is likely to dominate Tuesday's meeting of Citizens for the Future of Jefferson County. The group plans to turn out in force for a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hearing on Victory Sand & Gravel's permit application, which is scheduled for 7 p.m. May 16 at Perry-Lecompton High School. A hearing on the Penny application has not been scheduled.
But White said the group hopes to be involved in broader community issues in the long term. That means running candidates for the city, county and planning commissions and school boards and providing input on issues ``so they are constantly exposed to views from people who want to have sustainable communities,'' White said.
``The task is to keep people energized after the immediate in-your-backyard issue goes away,'' he said.