Douglas County leaders adopt new plan for conservation of open spaces

photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World

Douglas County Sustainability Manager Kim Criner Ritchie addresses the Douglas County Commission during the group's meeting on Wednesday, April 3, 2024.

Douglas County leaders on Wednesday approved a new plan for how the county should be conserving its open spaces, a year and a half after the development process for the plan began.

At Wednesday’s Douglas County Commission meeting, commissioners unanimously adopted a new Open Space Plan. As the Journal-World has reported, the plan is intended to provide guidance for preserving cultural sites and natural lands like grasslands, public parks, wetlands and trails and has officially been in development since late 2022.

All three commissioners expressed satisfaction with the final version of the plan Wednesday night. Commissioner Shannon Reid said she appreciated that the plan wasn’t “prescriptive” in nature, since it doesn’t mandate anything from citizens.

But Commissioner Patrick Kelly also cautioned against viewing the plan as the ultimate solution — and action — to questions about land conservation in Douglas County. Kelly noted that while a lot of people were able to engage with the planning process, there were likely others who felt they hadn’t had a chance to do so. Those people, he said, ought to be involved in further conversations about open spaces, especially since there are often “tensions” between development, open space and land use.

“… I want to make sure that we’re not over-promising on these plans,” Kelly said. “This is a step in a further conversation about how we use the land that we have in Douglas County, and I appreciate everybody’s work and engagement on it.”

The plan does, however, lay out some next steps that county staffers said would guide how they’ll use the roughly $2.8 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds allocated earlier in the open space planning process.

Among those things, Heritage Conservation Coordinator Kaitlyn Ammerlaan told commissioners, would be conservation efforts in the Wakarusa River Corridor. Ammerlaan said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has already reached out to get involved as a partner to study flooding and hydrology, a branch of science concerned with the properties of water and its movement in relation to land.

Commissioners had questions for staff about topics like whether the plan claims or rezones any land in Douglas County or requires any additional county spending, neither of which is the case. County staff said the rezoning question, as well as others about how the Open Space Plan might be used in other community planning documents, would address some future-facing actions that could return to the County Commission down the line or manifest as part of their own public processes.

In other business, commissioners:

• Approved 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 a $321,032 “Continuum of Care Competition Grant” from HUD in 2022, which is intended to fund supportive housing efforts for up to 12 chronically homeless individuals in 2024 and part of 2025. The agreement approved Wednesday designates Bert Nash as a “sub-recipient” of the grant, a term used by HUD for the agency that actually carries out the work.

• Approved a request to initiate an amendment to the zoning and land use regulations for unincorporated Douglas County that adds “office” use as a conditional use in certain zoning districts.

The request originally appeared on the meeting’s consent agenda, but was pulled by Commission Chair Karen Willey for further discussion and clarification. A member of the public had made the request to add the amendment.

Planner Mary Miller told commissioners that the office use was previously listed in the zoning regulations, but it was unintentionally left out when new regulations were adopted in 2020. She noted one example of how the zoning category might be used: to repurpose a building that may previously have been used as a schoolhouse for a company’s administrative office, an “adaptive reuse.”

“This is just the beginning of the process,” Miller told commissioners. “Once it gets initiated, then staff will review it, prepare draft language, it’ll go to the (Lawrence-Douglas County) Planning Commission, the Planning Commission will vote on the recommendation, and then it’ll come back to you.”

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


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