Archive for Sunday, October 1, 2000

Candidates have vivid differences

County commission race a breed apart

October 1, 2000


A common complaint among voters these days is that major party political contenders are about as different as Coke and Pepsi.

But that's a hard argument to make about Douglas County's 3rd District commission race, which pits two men of clear distinctions against one another.

"I can't recall a county commission race that focused a lot on the question of 'Are you a Chamber (of Commerce) candidate vs. are you a neighborhood candidate?'" Andrew Ramirez, county planning commission member

"People that vote are going to vote one way or another," said Mark Buhler, a former county commissioner. "It's not going to be a tossup."

Democrat Larry Kipp is the county's champion of "smart growth."

He relishes the chance to put his ideas in motion with the support of like-minded Commissioner Charles Jones.

Republican Jere McElhaney promises to defend property rights and praises the county's past commissions, including those of his father, whose eight years on the commission ended four years ago.

The race more resembles a Lawrence City Commission race, with McElhaney supported by developers and Kipp backed by environmentalists and neighborhood types.

"I can't recall a county commission race that focused a lot on the question of 'Are you a Chamber (of Commerce) candidate vs. are you a neighborhood candidate?'" said Andrew Ramirez, a Republican who serves on the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission.

Effect on growth

November's election will put in place a three-member commission the county can expect to live with for two years. Tasks before the trio will include revision of the county's land-use regulations, decisions on where roads and highways will be built and, perhaps most significant, charting rural Douglas County development.

"We've got some pretty critical things coming up in the next couple years," Ramirez said. "There are some major policy issues that are going to have to be addressed in terms of the land-use issues."

Kipp, a Manhattan native, grew up in Wilmington, Del. He attended Ottawa University and has degrees from the University of Delaware and Kansas University. He taught and worked at the University of New Brunswick in Canada before returning to Lawrence in 1991. He lives on 36 acres northwest of the city.

Since then, he has been a frequent presence at city and county commission meetings, sharing his concerns about county growth and the effect on the environment and taxes.

"Larry is clearly the godfather of smart growth in Douglas County," Ramirez said. "I think Larry has some ideas that he really wants to see the community implement, but they're sometimes like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole."

Timely idea

Since Kipp first started his rhetoric, the vocabulary of smart growth has become part of the community dialogue, especially following the spring Smart Growth conference. The event was conducted by Kipp and attended by a cross section of developers and environmentalists.

Kipp failed in a county commission bid four years ago. Now, he said, his ideas have gained credibility.

"There's a lot of people who are beginning to see the relationship between rising property values and growth that is not paying for itself, and they are beginning to resent it," Kipp said.

McElhaney is a Lawrence native. He graduated from Lawrence High School in 1976 and has run McElhaney Fence Co. for 20 years. He and his five employees install commercial fencing in Lawrence and area towns.

Five years ago, he moved from the city to a new home built near his father's house just off U.S. Highway 59 south of Lawrence.

McElhaney is aware of his legacy.

"Dad did a great job," he said. "We have had such great county commissions in the past. They have set a good precedent and I want to continue that."

Continuing policy

McElhaney said past commissions have handled the county's growth well and hired good employees like County Administrator Craig Weinaug to run day-to-day business.

McElhaney attended part of the Smart Growth conference. But he doesn't like the term.

"I would rather use the term common sense rather than smart growth," he said.

He said he fears strong efforts to control development or direct it will halt growth.

"It's like turning the spigot off," he said. "We don't want to grind the county to a halt."

To Kipp, the homes that now cover many of the hills in the rural areas of Douglas County are a potential tax burden, their owners demanding fire protection, street maintenance and water.

To McElhaney, they are "good neighbors," fulfilling the same dream he had when he moved to his father's farm.

"I can't blame them," McElhaney said. Douglas County has "always been in transition. This community has never really been stagnant."

McElhaney acknowledges growth has increased taxes. But, he says, it also has brought opportunities that allow people to stay in Douglas County.

'Growth dividend'

Kipp frets that the costs of more roads, a larger jail, a septic waste disposal site and other services are paid mostly through increasing property taxes. And that hurts people on fixed incomes the most.

"The most important issue we face is trying to keep this county affordable to the people who are already here," Kipp said.

Kipp said growth should pay for itself. He wants developers to pay the full cost of services they demand.

He said he also wants to offer incentives to developers who build where there is easily reached infrastructure.

The ideas still have some people scratching their heads.

"Larry is a nice person and Larry cares," Buhler, a Republican, said. "I've never been able to understand some of the theory and some of the things he wants to do."

Kipp said the tenets of smart growth are complex, but the basic mission is simple.

It "boils down to taxpayer protection and finding the growth dividend for taxpayers," he said. "It doesn't make any sense to grow if it is not going to pay for itself."

Nuts and bolts

Jones, a fellow Democrat, says Kipp is on track and is interested in holding developers more closely to the recommendations in Horizon 2020, the city and county land-use guide. Kipp supported Jones' campaign two years ago with money and advice, and Jones said he is returning the favor.

McElhaney said that despite growth, a commissioner's job still includes a lot of nuts-and-bolts decisions about roads and culverts and bridges.

"We can't forget those little issues," McElhaney said. "We still have to take care of our roads."

Buhler, who is on McElhaney's steering committee, said McElhaney would excel at that.

"I think Jere will always in the back of his mind before he makes decision ask 'Does this makes sense? Can I explain it? Can I justify it?'" Buhler said. "I think that part of Louie McElhaney Jere has inherited."

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