Lawrence City Commission approves new comprehensive plan that includes controversial growth policy

photo by: Mike Yoder

Lawrence City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St., is pictured Thursday, July 7, 2016

Lawrence city commissioners approved the city’s new comprehensive plan on Tuesday without making substantial changes, despite the fact that several members had voiced support for loosening the plan’s requirements for annexing new land into the city.

At its meeting, the commission voted 4-1, with Commissioner Matthew Herbert opposing, to approve Plan 2040, which covers Lawrence and the unincorporated areas of Douglas County. The plan has a new growth policy that prioritizes infill development and adds requirements for developers who want to expand the city’s boundaries. One requirement is that developers must provide some kind of community benefit if they want to annex land to expand the city. That idea has been controversial with some members of the local business community, who say it will increase the cost of housing.

The plan lists some examples of community benefits that developments could provide: affordable housing; employment; preservation or provision of land; and the construction of amenities or facilities for a public purpose.

Herbert proposed adding another community benefit to the list: annexing residential lots to add to the city’s inventory if the supply of residential lots becomes severely limited.

“The creation of supply is going to help ease the cost of housing, because when we zero out or we get to a point where our infill lot availability is so limited, you’re going to see the cost of those homes skyrocket,” Herbert said. “People aren’t going to build affordable housing on the last available lot. That’s basic economics.”

Vice Mayor Jennifer Ananda said she would be supportive of expanding the definition of community benefit in the way Herbert proposed. However, Ananda said she thought that regardless of whether that change was made, lot inventory would still weigh into the commission’s decision.

“I think that regardless of whether we put it in there, it’s a community benefit that I think would be identified and brought to us,” Ananda said. “I think there is a real concern about the lack of available lots in the near future. And it does seem somewhat shortsighted to have problems in here that we know are coming sooner (rather) than later that we aren’t clearly identifying.”

But Mayor Lisa Larsen pointed out that the commission will go into more detail about the definition of a community benefit as zoning regulations and other rules are drafted to implement the plan. Larsen said she agreed lot inventory was an issue, but she emphasized that the community benefit list was never meant to be comprehensive.

“Once this (plan) is passed through the various bodies that it needs to go through, that’s when the work will really begin to identify more specifically what a community benefit is,” Larsen said.

Ultimately, the commission did not go along with Herbert’s suggestion for tweaking the language of the policy. However, it did vote to add language that clarifies that annexation decisions are made purely at the discretion of the commission.

Ananda previously proposed that the policy should add that language to make it clear that the policy doesn’t bind the commission to approve or deny certain annexation requests. That section goes on to state that the city shall consider factors such as, but not limited to, community land use inventories, market sector health, the ratio of residential valuation to income, and the community benefit provided.

Plan 2040 will replace the previous comprehensive plan, Horizon 2020. Now that it has been approved by the City Commission, it will move to the County Commission for review. Changes made by either body will go back to the Planning Commission.

In other business, the commission and city staff provided clarification to the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board about what it should prepare for the commission ahead of the 2021 budget process. City Manager Craig Owens told board representatives that it would be helpful if the board sought public input and provided policy recommendations related to user fees and programming. Commissioners indicated they agreed.

Owens said that if the city did decide to increase some fees or change programming, there should be policies governing those changes that take factors such as income, age and health into account.

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