A barn that housed fugitives along the Underground Railroad, a building that was once a stopping point along the Santa Fe Trail and an Italian country villa built by one of Lawrence’s early businessmen — these are among the sites scattered through Douglas County that are at risk of being buried by time.
Others already have been lost, said Judy Billings, executive director of Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area.
Billings and others in the community hope that the $350,000 that Douglas County Commission earmarked last month for heritage and open space projects will help identify sites such as these as being worthy of preservation.
“I think most people understand that Douglas County has a very rich history and some of the real assets that we see, touch and feel are going away,” Billings said. “Unless we have a survey and documentation of all that we have, we will continue to see an erosion of historical assets.”
For Jerry Jost at the Kansas Land Trust, that money would help save prairies, cropland and woods from development. Each year, Kansas doesn’t spend all of the $2 million it is allotted through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm and Ranchland Protection Program.
Through the program, the federal government sets aside money to pay landowners for conservation easements. Before the money can come to Kansas, a partial match is required from nonfederal entities.
“We unfortunately have to walk away because we don’t have the local or private or state money that could match it,” Jost said.
Looking to the future
When the county commission approved its final budget on Aug. 18, the decision to set aside $350,000 for heritage and open space preservation wasn’t popular.
Commissioner Jim Flory voted against it. Residents told the commission that with the economy in the dumps, now wasn’t the time to spend money on anything but bare essentials.
Commission Chairwoman Nancy Thellman disagrees.
“It stems out of the desire to be a little forward-thinking about saving those things that are most unique and special about the community while we still have them. It’s not just about this generation, but about the next one and the next one,” Thellman said. “We’ve got to start sometime.”
By next summer, Thellman would like the county to have a board in place that would review historic and land preservation projects submitted by Douglas County residents. By the end of that year, she hopes the commission will have selected which projects to fund.
That board would make recommendations on what projects to approve, but the county commission would have the final say. The process would be public.
Before any of that can happen, Thellman said the historic resources chapter in the comprehensive plan needs to be updated. That wording will lay the foundation for what kind of preservation work needs to be done, Thellman said.
The county must also form a task force and do a survey that lists the area’s historical properties and important open space areas. The task force will help set up what the board would look like and guidelines for deciding what projects are approved.
A countywide survey will establish what properties in Douglas County are most worthy of preserving and how they connect to other important sites. The survey could take up to two years to complete. While the survey will cost money, Thellman predicts the vast amount of the $350,000 set aside in the 2011 budget will go toward funding projects.
In October, the county plans to starting meeting with residents in Lawrence and the smaller cities to find out what properties exist that could be preserved and what they would like to see saved.
“My sense is there is a lot out there that we need to identify and prioritize and see who wants to participate,” Thellman said. “In the end, there will be more to do out there than money to spend.”
For the plan to work, Thellman said the public’s support is needed.
“Right off the bat, there is a need for a lot of public education and reassurance that this is not a mandatory program, not a program where we take over farms or impose preservation where it’s not wanted,” she said. “The ground rules are that all preservation is a voluntary act, something that is a public-private partnership.”