If Lawrence wants to have an active role in determining how the city grows, it can't just wait for growth to happen. It needs to get ahead of that growth with a plan.
With that in mind, it makes sense for Lawrence city commissioners to consider a new annexation policy that would take a more proactive approach to bringing the city's growth area under the city's planning umbrella.
Currently, the Lawrence City Commission usually waits for landowners to present a development plan before annexing land into the city. That means that property usually comes into the city in relatively small chunks that may or may not fit with any long-range plan for a larger area.
The plan being floated by the mayor would use the city's designated urban growth area as a guide for annexation. After reviewing and perhaps redrawing that growth area, the city would annex all of the area the city is expected to grow into in the next three to five years. That could involve several hundred acres or more. Working with landowners, the city then could plan streets and other infrastructure for the new areas rather than waiting for developers to deliver that planning to the city in a piecemeal fashion.
There are, of course, some concerns about this plan. To make the plan work the city will have to deal with landowners who, for various reasons, don't want their property annexed into the city. Developers also are concerned that their projects might be delayed because the city won't act quickly enough to extend streets and other city services.
The city needs to be sensitive to landowners, but landowners also need to realize that keeping their property out of the city limits temporarily may not prevent the city from growing in their direction or even surrounding their property, a situation that benefits no one.
The cooperation and participation of Douglas County commissioners, of course, will be essential to the annexation plan because state law gives the County Commission power to block large-scale annexations that are opposed by property owners. The city also would have to ensure that streets and utilities are extended in a timely manner that doesn't stymie the work of developers.
Despite the concerns, annexing property ahead of development would present a number of opportunities for the city. One of the biggest advantages, it seems, would be to allow the city a more active role in platting streets in a way that promotes neighborhoods and provides for good traffic flow rather than having acres of property occupied by snaking streets and cul-de-sacs.
It also would allow the city to plan neighborhood schools, commercial centers and recreation areas to promote more foot and bicycle traffic and more neighborhood activity and interaction. Making the city's growth more predictable could benefit developers and landowners and allow the city to better plan for the financial demands of its growing infrastructure.
A new annexation strategy is almost certain to have some opponents, but it could be that the planning benefits afforded by such a move would far outweigh any negative impacts. One way or another, Lawrence is going to grow. Large-scale annexation may allow the city to do the long-range planning that will guide that growth in a way that makes Lawrence an even more livable city in the future.