Archive for Thursday, April 26, 2001

THU GROWTH Horizon 2020 subject to debate

April 26, 2001

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These days, discussions about Horizon 2020 often take on the tone of a constitutional debate.

Are you a strict constructionist or a loose constructionist?

Is it law or simply a guide?

And on and on.

And as with the Constitution, a lot gets said about the framers' intentions. There were lots of framers of Horizon 2020, and lots of intentions. More than 300 people served on "task groups" that developed various sections of the plan; literally thousands of city and county residents attended public meetings to add their input.

The stakes were high.

The year was 1990. Price Banks, then director of the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Office, was proposing a new comprehensive plan for Lawrence, a plan that would guide the community's land-use decisions for a generation to come. He knew the job would be difficult -- the city's old plan, Plan '95, was oft-referenced by officials and residents alike.

"Gee whiz, I've never been any place where people drag that plan out at every meeting the way they drag it out in Lawrence," Banks said at the time.

As a result, he said, it was critical that the entire community be involved in creating the new plan. That way, everybody could get behind the end result.

"It's going to be a neat process. It's got the potential to be a fun process, but it's also going to grow ulcers," Banks said. "I hope there's going to be a lot of discussion about it."

It was six years after Banks first discussed Horizon 2020 that it was approved by planning commissioners -- with the understanding, according to a newspaper report at the time, that it was a "planning tool, not a bible." It was two more years before the document received final approval from the Douglas County Commission.

"It took a lot longer than most of us wanted it to," recalled Jean Milstead, the planning commissioner who spearheaded Horizon 2020's creation.

"But I was pleased with the result. There was lots of opportunity for the public to be involved, and I think the plan reflects what the community wanted."

What the community wanted, Milstead said, was direction.

"I think they wanted to have planned growth rather than unreined growth," she said. "They wanted to provide for neighborhood activities, the way the zoning goals were developed. They wanted a community that was attractive, and logical locations for retail businesses, industrial, and so forth, so that single-family residences were protected."

And Milstead has an opinion about how the plan has taken root.

"I think," she said, "they've done a really good job."

Guiding light

Chapter One, Page One of Horizon 2020 is mentioned with some frequency at meetings where development issues are being discussed, because it gives a clue as to how the document should be interpreted. It includes the following, much-quoted paragraph:

"The comprehensive plan provides a vision for the community. It is used as a policy guide that identifies the community's goals for directing future land-use decisions. The plan is also used by property owners to identify where and how development should occur; by residents to understand what the city and county anticipates for future land uses within the community; and by the city, county and other public agencies to plan for future improvements to serve the growing population of the community."

Melinda Henderson, a community activist, read that paragraph during a March 28 meeting of the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission. The commission was looking at two controversial proposals -- one for a Home Depot store at 31st Street and Ousdahl Drive, another for a "big box" development at Sixth Street and Wakarusa Drive -- that opponents and planning staffers said went against the provisions of Horizon 2020.

"That's the perspective so many of us come to you with," Henderson said after reading the paragraph. "That we read the plan and we try to study it and try to understand it and feel like we have a grasp on what the direction is for certain areas of the community, only to come here and hear that it is only a guide."

But, Planning Commissioner Ron Durflinger replied, it is only a guide.

"Guide plans, or comprehensive plans, are guide plans," he said. "If we wanted them to be law, we would codify them."

The greater purpose of Horizon 2020, Durflinger told onlookers, was to provide a reference point and stimulate discussion about planning issues.

"Guide plans, I look at them as a lightning rod," he said. "Whether we recommend to approve this or deny it, Horizon 2020 has brought out discussion about needs of this area for improvement and as such it's good."

Law of the land

David Burress, a Kansas University professor and a "smart-growth" advocate, argues that Horizon 2020 does have the force of law.

"It's not very much of a reason to go to all the work that we did to create a plan if all it does is create a list of things for us to argue about," he said.

"I think if people want anything out of a plan, what they want is for sometimes you guys to turn something down based on the plan. They want you to have the ability to say no. They want you to be able to reject stuff."

Larry Kipp, another smart-growth advocate, said the city was hurting its ability to defend itself in court with varying interpretations of the plan. The city successfully defended a lawsuit brought by a hospital company in the mid-1990s, Kipp said, because commissioners had consistently adhered to the comprehensive plan to reject a new hospital proposal.

"So the actions you take each time incrementally either degrade or enhance the city's ability to provide a legal defense should the need ever arise," said Kipp, an investor. "That's a responsibility you have to uphold if you're going to be responsible citizens serving the taxpayers of the community."

Durflinger said Horizon 2020 hadn't anticipated every development situation.

"I work with plans every day," he said. "Yet I'm also a pragmatic individual and I've realized that plans sometimes don't work for the situation. So I have two choices: I can either sit there and say 'I had a plan and I can live with my mistake,' or I can look at it, assess the situation, and say 'I need to change that.' "

-- Staff writer Joel Mathis can be reached at 832-7126.

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