Douglas County has ‘a lot of catching up to do’ as work to craft open space plan begins in earnest, consultants say
photo by: Douglas County
Douglas County has a lot of ground to make up as it works on a blueprint for what will happen to its natural, undeveloped land in the future.
That was the message last week from the team that’s working on the county’s open space plan — six county staff members and some consultants from Lawrence-based Coneflower Consulting and Logan Simpson, an environmental planning firm with offices in Arizona, Colorado, Nevada and Utah. An open space plan’s purpose is to guide the protection and management of natural, undeveloped lands, and the team said it wants to move quickly — potentially finishing the plan as soon as May 2024.
“When we met with Logan Simpson, one thing that was really shocking that they said to us was ‘Douglas County is about a decade behind everyone else, and you have a lot of catching up to do,'” said county zoning director Tonya Voigt at Wednesday’s Douglas County Commission meeting. “We’re still kind of reeling with that concept and trying to catch up as fast as we can.”
The consultants and county staff said that some counties in Kansas, including Riley and Johnson counties, had already done some of this type of planning about their undeveloped areas, and that there were communities in nearby states such as Iowa and Colorado that had recently made full-blown open space plans.
Exactly what concrete steps these other communities were taking wasn’t clear in Wednesday’s presentation, but the team had some ideas of what open space planning would mean in Douglas County. In addition to safeguarding undeveloped areas, it could also include promoting recreational activities, preserving community history and improving flood water management capabilities. And it’s not necessarily limited to lands that the county owns — it could also provide guidelines for how privately owned open spaces could be used. Logan Simpson project manager Andrew Newman said that the plan can’t make any policy changes on its own, but that it could recommend new rules for undeveloped areas and new programs, legislative initiatives and partnerships.
“Really, this is about more than the county’s space in this process,” Douglas County Administrator Sarah Plinsky told the commission, referring to county-owned land. “It’s really more about how do we think about what we want as a community for all open spaces, which does sound really broad.”
County leaders first approved a project charter to create an open space plan in May of 2019, but staff said the work really started to pick up steam last year. In August 2022, the commission set aside nearly $2.8 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding for various expenses related to the plan, which Voigt mentioned briefly during Wednesday’s meeting. The funding is to be used for public meetings, outreach, mapping, land acquisition, conservation easements, trail and parking construction and at least two open space-related projects funded through the county’s Heritage Conservation Council.
Newman said the next steps in the process will involve listening to the public and figuring out what the community’s values and attitudes about land use are. He and the rest of the team want a diverse group of county residents to serve as advisers on the plan — landowners, stakeholders in agriculture and recreation, young people, Indigenous people and more. County staff has already started recruiting people to serve on the advisory committee.
“We have actively sent out invitations and are receiving commitments back, but it’s very early to give you a composite of those individuals and groups,” said Douglas County Sustainability Manager Kim Criner Ritchie, who is on the project team. “… We’re actually hoping to convene by the end of the month. We want to bring them on very early.”
photo by: Douglas County
That’s not the only input the community will have on the plan. According to a project schedule that the team shared on Wednesday, there will be a listening tour this spring and summer, as well as a hotline for people interested in learning more about the plan, some surveys, and a photo contest where people can share pictures of the natural spaces in the county that mean the most to them.
For now, the team is focused mostly on gathering the advisory committee and doing some early marketing and outreach tasks, such as building an online presence and scheduling some of these community feedback events. The actual drafting of the plan is expected to start in August, and open houses and other events will give residents the chance to review it as it comes together.