Douglas County leaders approve proposal to bar more housing near Lawrence unless the city expands, calling it ‘the best way forward’

photo by: Douglas County

The Douglas County Commission votes to approve new subdivision regulations as part of its meeting on Sept. 29, 2021.

Citing the need for smarter growth, county leaders have voted to approve regulations that prohibit new neighborhoods in rural areas near the City of Lawrence unless that land is ready to be added to the city.

As part of its meeting Wednesday, the Douglas County Commission voted unanimously to approve an amendment to subdivision regulations for Lawrence and the unincorporated areas of Douglas County. In contrast to rural residential developments, Commission Chair Shannon Portillo said housing that’s annexed into the city’s boundaries and developed to city standards has full access to utilities and all the amenities of well-planned development.

“I think that this is an important step for our community, not in any way to limit growth but to actually make sure that we’re growing in a smart way so that we can have well-planned communities,” Portillo said.

The proposed changes represent a turnaround from the relative ease of subdividing rural or agricultural land into residential lots in recent decades, which has resulted in a boom of rural neighborhoods with multi-acre lots. Planners have said such developments preclude denser city expansion in those areas and create infrastructure problems for both the city and the county.

Under the proposed amendment, which the City Commission must also approve, new neighborhoods in the current and future growth areas of the city — known as tier two and tier three — would be allowed only when the development is eligible to be annexed into the city. As a result, property owners wishing to develop land outside the city’s immediate growth area into residential neighborhoods may have to wait years before they are eligible to do so.

Some members of the public — including representatives of the Lawrence Board of Realtors and the Lawrence Home Builders Association — have criticized the regulations for restricting how property owners can develop land and potentially limiting the addition of much-needed housing. But others said the changes were needed to prevent further suburban sprawl.

Planners say the amendment works to implement the density standards and other goals related to growth management that are laid out in the community’s most recent comprehensive plan, Plan 2040. It took years to develop the plan, which was approved by both governing bodies in 2019. The idea for the growth tiers was included in the plan, and the groups that opposed the new subdivision regulations also previously voiced concerns about new requirements to develop under the tier system.

Commissioner Patrick Kelly noted the community has been talking about the issues for a long time, and though he recognized there were competing values, he said he was comfortable with the changes.

“I think it is a choice that we’ve made as a community, and that’s the critical thing to think about here,” Kelly said. “There are equally competing values on this, but I think in my discussions in the community, with the Planning Commission, with the City Commission, this is the best way forward.”

Vice Chair Shannon Reid said she agreed with the positions of her fellow commissioners. The County Commission’s approval of the amendment means it will now go to the City Commission for a vote. The City Commission previously expressed interest in the proposal, saying that if it goes forward the city should be ready to expand its boundaries to accommodate needed housing.