Douglas County considering more changes to land-use regulations to further limit rural residential development

photo by: Jackson Barton/Journal-World File Photo

The Douglas County Courthouse and downtown Lawrence are pictured in an aerial photo Saturday, July 13, 2019.

Although Douglas County adopted new zoning regulations last year to limit residential development in rural parts of the county, that effort did not go exactly as planned.

Tonya Voigt, the county’s zoning and codes director, told the County Commission recently that new codes that were adopted in early 2020 slowed the number of residential subdivisions into land parcels of 10 acres or smaller, but vastly increased the number of divisions into 20-acre lots.

She said that meant the codes didn’t create the situation the county staff had hoped for.

“It has not slowed down development; it has just changed the way development is happening,” Voigt said.

With that in mind, more changes could soon be coming to the zoning and codes regulations, further restricting that kind of development in rural areas. County zoning and planning staff recently proposed making two changes to the codes.

The proposed changes include updating the codes to install a tool — Land Evaluation and Site Assessment system, also known as LESA — that helps determine prime agricultural land in the county. With the tool, the county could determine which lands should be preserved specifically for agricultural uses. The other change includes treating a majority of the urban growth area around Lawrence the same way rural areas are treated, prohibiting cluster developments — which are basically residential neighborhoods — from being developed in those areas.

Those changes would likely lead to the need for text amendments to the city-county comprehensive plan, Plan 2040, which is the guiding document for how land should be used in the future.

The County Commission recently directed staff to explore those changes, which could be brought back for the commissioners to consider later this year.

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In early 2020, the county approved the new codes, introducing several new zoning districts into the county’s land-use regulations. Part of the reason the codes were updated was to address a dramatic increase in residential subdivisions in rural parts of the county.

The increase of residential development in rural areas ran counter to the county’s goal of preserving the agricultural characteristics of rural areas. The rural development also makes it more difficult for the City of Lawrence and the county to establish infrastructure efficiently.

To help address the increase of development and to preserve farm lands, the county changed the sizes allowed for land subdivision and the process, requiring property owners to rezone their land through public approval process, among other changes. Previously, rezoning was not required, and the process was done administratively, providing little opportunity for the county to halt undesirable changes.

But even with the new zoning codes, the county is still seeing more residential development than it would like. Voigt said the codes were successful in decreasing the number of subdivisions that created residential properties on 10-acre lots or smaller, but had increased the number of subdivisions creating residential properties on 20-acre lots. Voigt said in the first year of the codes, the county processed almost 30 requests for subdivisions of land into 20-acre lots, which is similar to the number of subdivisions the county saw prior.

“Before, where you were seeing 10-acre lots or some 5-acre lots subdivided, now we are just seeing a larger number of 20-acre lots subdivided,” she said.

The code change proposal suggests the county could restrict the cluster development zoning to Tier 2 of the urban growth area, which are small pockets adjacent to Lawrence city limits, while prohibiting that development and limiting the amount of nonagricultural residential development in Tier 3, which makes up a majority of the growth area. The changes would decrease the number of areas where residential neighborhoods could be developed in the county.

photo by: Contributed photo

This map shows the urban growth area around Lawrence. The blue shade represents Tier 1, which is the Lawrence city limits; the green represents Tier 2, which are areas ready for Lawrence annexation, and the orange is Tier 3, which are areas that are expected to be part of Lawrence in the future but are not ready for annexation. County staff proposed restrictions for residential development in Tier 3.

Meanwhile, the county has been in the process of developing the LESA system with the help of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The system is meant to give the county a technical tool to consistently evaluate agricultural land, rather than having staff make subjective judgments. Planner Mary Miller said the tool would be used for rezoning requests to allow the county to determine whether a land rezoning would take away prime agricultural land — if so, the county could deny the request.

Incorporating the tool could also help the county restrict the amount of rural development by making sure the best farmland is preserved and not turned into neighborhoods.

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When the new codes were approved last year, county staff said amendments would likely be needed as time went on, leaving the door open for these kinds of changes.

But the proposed changes would also likely mean the county would need to update its land-use plans for certain areas. Commissioner Patrick Kelly said the current zoning regulations conflicted with some of the county’s area plans, which say some residential subdivisions may occur in rural areas.

But those plans are not due to be updated for a few more years. Jeff Crick, director of Lawrence-Douglas County Planning and Development Services, said five area plans overseeing county territory were written under the former joint city-county comprehensive plan known as Horizon 2020. He said those plans conflicted with the county’s codes but were not scheduled to be updated until 2023.

That puts the County Commission and the Lawrence-Douglas County Metropolitan Planning Commission in a bind to decide which plans to follow when residents apply for land subdivisions, Kelly said. He suggested it also left the county open to legal challenges when subdivision requests were denied.

“I don’t want to end up in court every time somebody brings something to us because they are going to point to the area plan and say they are just following the area plan,” Kelly said.

Crick said he believed exploring subdivision code changes was still appropriate and the county could consider text amendments to the comprehensive plan to make it compatible with the codes until the county could formally update the area plans later. He said making a comprehensive plan change could take at least six months. Kelly said he wanted the county to get working on updating the plans quickly, and he supported Crick’s suggestion.

“Anything we can do to speed that up, and if it’s a text amendment and it takes six months, that’s the direction I’d like to see us going,” he said.

County Administrator Sarah Plinsky said the changes to the codes and the comprehensive plan could happen “on a parallel track” with the changes needed to incorporate the LESA system. She said county staff would likely bring a recommendation for the commissioners to consider in the near future outlining the proposed code changes and how the comprehensive plan could be updated.

“These rules and regulations allow (the subdivisions) to continue to happen until we change the regulations to change that,” she said.

Related coverage

• Aug. 18, 2019: ‘Shocking’ increase of residential development in rural parts of Douglas County likely to bring code changes

• Sept. 18, 2019: Douglas County Commission hears proposal to change county’s rules for dividing rural land

• Dec. 1, 2019: Douglas County’s proposed zoning code changes heading to Planning Commission soon

• Dec. 16, 2019: Residents of Big Springs voice opposition to Douglas County’s proposed zoning regulation changes

• Jan. 24, 2020: Planning Commission approves proposed county zoning regulation changes after revising Big Springs district

• Feb. 19, 2020: Douglas County Commission authorizes new zoning regulations, expects county staff to continue refining them


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