Archive for Sunday, December 3, 2006

Rural development infringes on personal paradise

December 3, 2006


A year or two ago, my neighbor leaned over the fence that separates our properties and told me that he'd sold his 80 acres. The new owner proposed to put some cattle on the land, he said. A phone call from the new owner blew that agreeable prospect away. He was going to divide the property into residential lots.

"You're breaking my heart," I said. He understood. He lived on a farm in Johnson County and wouldn't want to have some developer spoil his surroundings. "Then why are you doing it to me?" I cried. Just then I realized that I was faced with one of the ruling principles of life, NIMBY - "Not In My Backyard." NIMBY is a quaint perversion of the Golden Rule - "Do unto others what you wouldn't want them to do unto you." It's a subchapter of the universal truth that one's ideals fly out the window when one's self-interest is at stake.

The 80 acres is a lovely piece of rolling land that includes a patch of priceless virgin prairie. It's part of the pristine view my wife and I enjoy. New houses would mean eyesores, racket and more of those hateful million-volt security lamps that erase the stars from our sky. My wife had a scheme for discouraging prospective settlers next door. We would extend our hog feeding operation in a narrow strip along the property line and erect a huge sign: "Gurley Pork and Manure Corp."

One thing that had enticed the new owner to Douglas County was the lax regulation governing rural subdivision. In Johnson County, he'd have to submit his plans for zoning approval. In Douglas County, the "five-acre exemption" has allowed property owners to divide and sell their land with minimal restrictions and without consideration of their neighbors' point of view. The new owner could make 16 lots out of his 80 acres, he said. I was supposed to be grateful for the fact that he was limiting his plan to eight.

In fact, I appreciated his forthrightness. Moreover, wasn't I caught on the horns of NIMBY myself? Now that I had my house in the country, I didn't want others to get the same thing. Was that fair? My neighbors probably gagged when my house was being built, spoiling their view.

I appeared before the County Commission to state my case: The future of rural Douglas County is being handed over to speculators from Johnson County, I said. Raising the exemption to 10 acres or more wasn't a substitute for planning. Neighbors of any new subdivision ought to have the opportunity to voice their opinions. How else can the commissioners know their constituents' views? What's needed is some kind of "vision" that preserves green space and mitigates sprawl, some more enlightened plan than an endless succession of cookie-cutter lots. Otherwise, the county's agricultural and natural character may be subdivided into oblivion.

These rural quandaries are echoed in Lawrence's struggles with the issues of growth and quality of life. The aesthetic and environmental downsides of growth are obvious. Less understood are the consequences of decline. Thwarting growth may diminish revenues for infrastructure and public services. People who demonize development forget that development provides jobs and pays taxes. Developers stereotyped as "greedy" wouldn't stay in business if they were no customers for the homes, stores and offices they build.

Paradoxes are at the heart of this debate. Some advocates of "smart" growth favor a south-of-the-Wakarusa location for the trafficway, which would likely cause an explosion of rural growth. Some residents of east Lawrence actually oppose improvement of their neighborhood, fearing that rising values would mean higher taxes. In an apparent attempt to protect downtown from competition, some city commissioners presume to dictate the city's retail needs. Nevertheless, downtown grows seedy at the edges and has even become a little unsafe.

The no-growth ideology may prevail. Developers - along with human capital, pocketbooks and potential employers - may go elsewhere. Frustration of new construction may drive the price of homes in Lawrence beyond the reach of all but the affluent, as it reportedly has in Boulder, Colo. Anyone who thinks that growth is "a cancer" ought to visit one of Kansas' many dying towns. Without opportunities for young people, Lawrence could become another one of those terminal nursing home communities.

It's not a good omen that Lawrence and Douglas County are threatening to disengage on planning matters. The futures of the two entities are obviously intertwined. Some county folks see Lawrence as an arrogant bully that has attempted to control rural growth by rationing water - another poor substitute for planning. Better relations between the two entities would be helpful. Moderate discourse rather than ideological, extremist ranting would be a good thing too. After all, we're not dealing with absolutes, but with conflicts of interest - my ox versus yours. The theme of "Paradise Lost" runs through history. Over and again, we plunder and despoil our Gardens of Eden and then long to regain what we've destroyed. Every generation sees its youth as the Golden Age and regards inevitable change as downfall. Lawrence and Douglas County face the same challenges faced by communities everywhere: How to balance our needs with nature's; how to preserve the things we value and grow. Is there hope? In a somber National Geographic article, David Quammen mused on the realities of a planet with six and a half billion people. "Human pressures and needs will inevitably prevail," he wrote. Paradoxically, those pressures may also be at odds with our survival.

As for me, I'm a misanthrope. To me the entire planet is scarcely large enough for me, my loved ones and a handfull of friends. As far as the rest of the 6.5 billion is concerned, I prefer the company of my dogs. But I'm also an optimist, confident that we will destroy ourselves before we destroy the earth.


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