Uncertainty often produces unpleasant results. City and county commissioners — along with area environmentalists — may be getting a reminder of that fact, courtesy of a fleet of bulldozers.
In recent weeks, at least two large areas of woodlands in rural Douglas County — one near Clinton State Park and one north of the Lecompton interchange on the Kansas Turnpike — have been bulldozed. Land that once was home to strong stands of trees now is largely barren earth.
Exactly why the sites have been deforested isn’t clear. The property owner — Lawrence builder Mike Stultz — hasn’t responded to requests for comment. But the clear-cutting comes at an interesting time. Earlier this summer, city and county commissioners approved a controversial new chapter to the long-range city-county plan, Horizon 2020. The addition is called the “environmental chapter,” and it sets out a long list of goals to protect the environment.
The environmental chapter was vigorously opposed by the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce, the Lawrence Board of Realtors and other development-oriented groups. The narrow City and County Commission majorities that passed the chapter frequently reminded opponents that the new chapter doesn’t create any new regulations, but that’s part of the problem. The chapter itself doesn’t create any new regulations, but rather leaves open the door for a nearly endless number of changes. The chapter directs staff members to begin crafting regulations related to limiting development near streams and protecting woodlands, wetlands and undeveloped pieces of plant and wildlife habitat, among others.
In the eyes of developers, that list creates a great deal of uncertainty about how they will be able to develop their properties in the future. If developers start taking actions to alter their properties — such as removing a large number of trees — as a hedge against future regulations, that would be disappointing — but not shocking.
It is disappointing that some members of the development community have so little trust in local leaders to craft reasonable regulations, but some past actions and switches in policies have given developers reason to be wary. Unfortunately, the most recent clear-cutting operations probably have diminished the development community’s standing in the eyes of some members of the public. None of this will help the community deal with the long-standing tensions related to the proper pace and scale of development in Lawrence and Douglas County.
It is admirable for local leaders to take action to protect the environment. Douglas County will be much better served in the future if it adopts an attitude of stewardship toward our natural resources. But it is unwise of us to create an environment of uncertainty in the process.
As it stands now, there is no timeline for staff members to begin crafting the new regulations that are called for in the environmental chapter. Will it be a year before the public begins to see the details? Two years? Five years? City and county commissioners need to create a timeline for that work to be completed.
Otherwise, the considerable work and debate that went into passing the chapter will be for naught. In its current form, the chapter does nothing for the county except to give local residents something else to argue over — and that’s one aspect of Lawrence’s environment that has never been endangered.