County Commissioner Jere McElhaney wants to stand up for rural residents, but splitting the city-county planning department isn't the answer.
The Douglas County Commission had no formal meetings this week, but that didn't stop Commissioner Jere McElhaney from putting a couple of issues on the table.
One of those issues is with the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission, which McElhaney said this week should be abolished. The joint planning commission is too biased toward the urban parts of the county and isn't concerned about the issues that concern rural residents. McElhaney wants the county to secede from the planning commission and instructed Planning Director Linda Finger to research how the split could be accomplished.
McElhaney said he wanted to look into a split for several reasons, including concerns about open space and floodplain issues. Perhaps the main issue he cited, however, was the five-acre exemption that allows rural property owners with five or more acres to build a single-family home without going through the zoning or platting process.
This exemption initially was envisioned as a way to allow rural families to build an additional home on their property for a relative, often a son or daughter who was involved with the family farming business. The exemption, however, often is used to develop residential areas with single-family homes located on five-acre lots. These unplatted lots often long, narrow tracts to comply with road frontage requirements would pose difficulties such as extending city utilities if they are ever annexed into the city.
Rural residents want to keep control over how their property is used, and city residents want to have more control over how Lawrence grows and how much it costs to extend utility services. It's a classic rural-urban rift.
Interestingly, if the unincorporated part of the county forms its own planning commission, it appears the city still could claim planning authority over all the property within a 3-mile radius of the city. That would be a much larger area than is now included in the urban growth area identified by the city-county planning commission, so the control of rural residents might actually be diminished instead of increased.
Beyond that, splitting city and county planning departments actually may weaken the area in years to come. The county will continue to face urban growth pressures not only from Lawrence but from the Topeka and Kansas City areas. To deal with those pressures, Lawrence and Douglas County must take a coordinated approach to where and how urban development should take place. In various discussions, including the public meetings conducted last summer as part of the World Co.'s "Lawrence is Growing" series, residents repeatedly have cited the need for the city and county to take a cooperative approach to planning.
McElhaney has a large rural constituency, and it is right for him to support their views. But splitting the rural and urban planning interests of Douglas County is a questionable move. Before the rift becomes too wide, city and county commissioners should get together and try to understand and appreciate various concerns and viewpoints.
This area is blessed with many assets and advantages, but the potential of Lawrence and Douglas County will not be realized without cooperation and understanding between city and county officials.