Douglas County leaders could adopt final version of plan for conservation of county’s open spaces

photo by: Journal-World

The west side of the Douglas County Courthouse, 1100 Massachusetts St., is pictured on Sept. 23, 2021.

A comprehensive plan for open space conservation in Douglas County could earn a final stamp of approval from county leaders this week.

At Wednesday’s Douglas County Commission meeting, commissioners will consider adopting the Open Space Plan, which is intended to provide guidance for preserving cultural sites and natural lands like grasslands, public parks, wetlands and trails.

The plan has officially been in development since late 2022, led by a team of county staff members and consultants with environmental planning firm Logan Simpson. However, it’s been five years since the county first committed to developing a guide for its open spaces, a recommendation from the county and City of Lawrence’s joint comprehensive plan adopted in 2019: Plan 2040.

The final version of the Open Space Plan, included as an attachment with Wednesday’s meeting agenda, cites a number of pressures as the reason the county needs a comprehensive open space conservation tool or strategy. That list includes the destruction of important natural and historic features due to land use changes and the encroachment of invasive species; increased occurrences of severe weather patterns resulting in flooding; and the agricultural economic pressures of a changing climate, volatile commodity crop prices and aging farmers without succession plans.

“The Open Space Plan is a new tool for the county government to intentionally work with public, private and community partners on shared priorities for future land use and preservation,” the plan reads. “It is intended to serve both as a broad policy guide and as a roadmap for implementing specific open space enhancements by current and future generations in Douglas County.”

It also outlines a number of recommendations for models and other tools that will advance the plan’s goals. One model calls for expanding the county’s existing Natural and Cultural Heritage grant program aimed at preserving local landmarks and natural areas throughout the county. Another suggests creating a new full-time staff position dedicated to open space conservation, which would initially be funded with a portion of the roughly $2.8 million in COVID-19 relief funds allocated for the open space planning process.

Other recommendations are related to potential projects, such as implementing programmatic support for private land conservation or improving county parks by restoring native ecosystems and controlling invasive plants. One potential project would involve partnering with Haskell Indian Nations University for conservation efforts in the Wakarusa River Corridor.

While the plan doesn’t outright call for additional taxes, it does note that a dedicated sales or property tax is one form of funding that would “provide a relatively predictable outcome versus grants and other soft money which significantly vary year to year or dry up altogether.” It provides an example of revenue generation if a 0.25% sales tax increase over the county’s current 1.25% tax were implemented, which would generate up to $6.5 million annually.

In other business, commissioners will:

• Consider making an agreement with Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center to provide rental assistance for chronically homeless individuals, using funding from a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grant.

The county was awarded the $321,032 HUD grant, which is called a “Continuum of Care Competition Grant,” in 2022, and it is intended to fund supportive housing efforts for up to 12 chronically homeless individuals in 2024 and part of 2025. The county doesn’t plan to spearhead those efforts on its own, though. Instead, the agreement on Wednesday’s agenda would designate Bert Nash as a “sub-recipient” of the grant — the term HUD uses for the agency that actually carries out the work.

According to the agreement, Bert Nash would be expected to provide rental assistance and supportive services using leased studio and one-bedroom residential units. The tenants would be required to sign an occupancy agreement and pay approximately 30% of their income toward rent; Bert Nash would then provide each tenant with ongoing supportive services. Bert Nash would also make sure that they continued receiving case management services, whether from Bert Nash or from another provider.

Other supportive services offered to tenants would include assistance in obtaining benefits such as Social Security Disability Insurance; reintegrating into families and the community; and establishing healthy, ongoing natural supports.

• Consider approving a recommended health care plan and contribution rates for Douglas County employees from June 1, 2024, to May 31, 2025.

With renovations underway in the County Commission’s usual meeting space at the Douglas County Courthouse, meetings for most of this year will take place in the Douglas County Public Works training room at 3755 E. 25th St. Wednesday’s business meeting begins at 5:30 p.m. The meeting will also be available via Zoom.


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