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Archive for Sunday, May 7, 2006

Saving open space important to community’s future

May 7, 2006

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Some Lawrence skeptics suspect that "smart growth" really means "no growth" at all and that what appears to be mere incompetence in planning reflects a plot to frustrate growth.

Certainly, the last thing anyone would accuse the town's planners and developers of is being "smart." Lawrence has the same motley, disheveled look of any other sprawling community - the same ugly shopping strips, the same monolithic seas of asphalt and roof tops, the same warren-like subdivisions. Parts of town, alas, recall the net that catches blown refuse at the landfill.

There are some who crow about Lawrence's downtown and praise the courageous people who fought off the Cornfield Mall. But the Cornfield Mall got built anyway, piecemeal fashion, on South Iowa and other streets. Downtown may be "the envy" of the rest of the world, but commercially it's an anomalous, funky place that doesn't serve the broad menu of conventional shopping needs.

The hallmarks of enlightenment and foresight are hard to discern in the evolution of either downtown or South Iowa. The erratic histories of the Riverfront Mall and the Tanger Mall demonstrate that things don't always work out according to plans anyway.

Out in the county, we have the notorious "five-acre exemption," a virtual antithesis of planning, which allows landowners to subdivide their properties without meaningful review or input from their neighbors. Rural Douglas County is being carved up into a checkerboard of five- and 10-acre farmettes. Open space is fast disappearing. And the need for some modicum of open space is one of the few things the conflicting visions of the future agree on.

Which brings me to a remarkable, little-known piece of open space known as the Kansas Field Station and Ecological Reserves (KSR), nearly 1,800 acres just north of the Lawrence Municipal Airport. Established in 1947 for science and environmental education, ecological research and natural resources conservation, the KSR is a natural wonderland that preserves some vestige of the county's original look before plows, automobiles and bulldozers tamed it according to human needs.

Home to at least 200 plant species, including the endangered Western Prairie Fringed Orchid and Mead's Milkweed, the KSR has generated over 700 scientific publications. Among its features are plots devoted to prairie restoration and ponds dedicated to the study of aquatic creatures such as the endangered Topeka shiner.

Charles Robinson, the first governor of Kansas, established his homestead on part of what is now the KSR. Two legendary Kansas University professors were instrumental in its beginnings: E.R. Hall, director of the Museum of Natural History for years, and 95-year-old Henry S. Fitch, professor of herpetology, who still lives on the premises. A grant from John D. Rockefeller bought one of the parcels, a remnant of original prairie. In other words, the KSR is a living museum of human as well as natural history and a priceless asset for the community.

Unfortunately, this lovely sanctuary is under siege. "The impact of increasing urbanization north of Lawrence is a genuine threat to KSR," according to a brochure published by the Kansas Biological Survey (KBS), which manages the property. "Encroaching development compromises the delicate natural and research areas that KSR seeks to protect now, and curtails their expansion in the future."

The KBS has mounted a campaign to protect the property and is seeking donations to help purchase 160 adjoining acres as a buffer. It proposes to develop the property as a public education center with trails, a shelter and gardens exhibiting native wildflowers and medicinal plants. It also will be used to expand the KSR's conservation and research missions.

This project suggests the kind of program Lawrence and Douglas County ought to be aggressively pursuing to assure that some parts of our landscape remain open and undeveloped. Douglas County farm ground can still be bought at $3,000-$5,000 an acre. One hundred and sixty acres at $3,000 per acre would cost no more than a couple of Lawrence's municipal buses. But the land would be there forever. As real estate salesmen like to say, they're not making any more land, and we can safely assume that land will never be cheaper.

"We're trying to be proactive in the preservation of important natural areas," said Scott Campbell, associate director of the KSR. "This would benefit the community as well as the KSR." Why not take a cue from the campaign to protect the KSR and start acquiring acreage around the county to be preserved in its natural state? Talk is in the air about spending some $20 million for open space. That sum could purchase as much as 5,000 acres, or eight square miles at today's prices. As an incentive to sell, farm owners could be offered cash and a life estate in their properties.

We may never be able to agree on some master plan for growth, but there's no argument against protecting some land from development. This would be one way to justify the term "smart" in the department of growth.

- George Gurley, a rural Baldwin resident, writes a regular column for the Journal-World.

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