Archive for Sunday, August 10, 2003

City’s coming growth causing rural angst

Landowners balk at possible development rules

August 10, 2003


Earl Church can see Kansas University and much of the city of Lawrence on the horizon from his ranch home south of town.

But that doesn't mean he wants it all creeping into his 152-acre back yard.

"It's all open around me," Church said, leaning over the painted redwood fence his father-in-law built 47 years ago. "That's what I enjoy about it. You've got your freedom. Nobody's up next to you. Nobody bothers you. You can do what you want."

But that could change in the coming months as elected officials prepare to dive back into one of Douglas County's most controversial growth-related issues: the size of Lawrence's urban-growth area.

Wednesday night, county commissioners are scheduled to discuss the prospects for expanding the growth area, which currently stops at the Wakarusa River south of Lawrence. Several proposals are on the table, including one that would stretch the city's development regulations to North 900 Road, three miles farther south.

The switch would tighten development restrictions for more than 20 square miles of land, an area that would be considered logical for the city's continued growth.

It also would mean that landowners in the area -- many of them farmers, some at retirement age -- no longer would be able to allow homes to be built on their properties without following a host of new development rules:

l Land would have to be set aside for roads, sewers and other public infrastructure.

l Homes could be required to include pipes large enough to accommodate connections to city water and sewer systems, once they became available.

Earl Church rests on a fence in his back yard, which is part of 152
acres he owns that look north toward Lawrence. Church is among
rural property owners who don't look forward to the city extending
its reach into areas south of the Wakarusa River.

Earl Church rests on a fence in his back yard, which is part of 152 acres he owns that look north toward Lawrence. Church is among rural property owners who don't look forward to the city extending its reach into areas south of the Wakarusa River.

l And land could not be subdivided until first being reviewed by the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission and the County Commission, a process that contains more legal variables than simply driving to the zoning office and applying for a building permit.

Looking ahead

Commissioner Charles Jones, a Lawrence resident, said the tighter restrictions would pay off in the future. Subdivisions, roads and public services would be coordinated to provide for the most efficient use of taxpayer dollars.

Eliminating the "5-acre exemption" might cost property owners a little freedom in their ability to carve up homesteads for development, he said, but it would pay off in higher property values for the owners and more efficient use of tax money for all.

"The 5-acre exemptions are short-term profits for the owners and long-term problems for the community," Jones said. "It's really a matter of the overall long-term public good versus the short-term, and it's our job to find the middle ground there."

Steven Barlow, who moved to Lawrence three years ago, likes the idea. He's looking to relocate to a home south of the river, where he can relax on a few more acres and escape the activity of the city, where he works as chairman of the speech, language and hearing department at Kansas University.

If he buys a place, he'd prefer that it have ready connections to water, sewer and other services once they become available.

"Those are questions we always ask," Barlow said Friday, checking out a place on 9.7 acres a quarter-mile south of the river. "It's expensive. It costs $5,000 to $10,000 to tie into the city or county utilities. It would be useful to be ready."

Commissioner Jere McElhaney, whose family owns 170 acres that would be included in the expanded area, sees no reason to hurry.

Risky business

City development restrictions should not seep south of the river until the city can assure property owners that public services will be coming soon, McElhaney said. Among the uncertainties he would like to see settled:

l Construction of the South Lawrence Trafficway north of the river, a project that would include widening of Louisiana Street and Haskell Avenue south of the city limits.

l Commitment from the city of Lawrence to build a new sewage treatment plant along the Wakarusa River, and a solid plan for extending the necessary sewer lines to properties south of the river.

l A viable city budget.

"Why do we want to increase the urban-growth area when the city is experiencing difficulty with its budget -- cutting back on roads and maintenance and everything else?" McElhaney said. "It just doesn't make business sense, when you're having financial difficulties, to expand your business, so to speak. The city has its hands full with what it has right now. Expanding the urban-growth area doesn't make sense until the roads and the infrastructure are in place."

Bob Johnson, commission chairman, also has concerns about the timing of the arrival of city services to an area where many residents rely on septic systems for sewage and wells for water. Making property owners adhere to city development rules without giving them access to city services within a reasonable amount of time, he said, wouldn't be fair.

Such talk is expected to dominate Wednesday's commission meeting, which is set to begin at 6:35 p.m. at the County Courthouse, 1100 Mass. Jones sees the idea of going south as logical, considering that much of the Lawrence school district is south of Lawrence.

"We are going to grow," Jones said. "We just have to pick a direction to grow ... and it's the nuts and bolts of it that we need to walk our way through."

Church would prefer that the regulations simply stay away. He turns 70 in December, and he has no intention of welcoming the city's development rules to the doorstep of his 152-acre cattle operation.

"I like it just as it is now," he said. "I can wear whatever I want. I can do whatever I want. When you get into the city -- where a house is 4 feet away from you -- you can't do that anymore. For me, it's a freedom deal. In the city, they tell you what to do.

"Out here, they can't."

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