County agrees to take less aggressive approach in trying to correct rural code violations

photo by: Rochelle Valverde

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

Douglas County officials are open to trying a more patient, less aggressive approach in dealing with rural properties that are violating some county codes, county commissioners were told Wednesday evening.

County commissioners at their weekly meeting unanimously approved a temporary business use permit that will give a rural resident up to five years to remove approximately 100 vehicles — many of them inoperable — from his rural home and farm site.

Commissioners granted the permit after the county’s planning staff recommended the approval as part of a new strategy in such cases.

“We are trying to have a less heavy-handed approach … We are trying more of a carrot than a stick approach,” Karl Bauer, county planner, told the board.

The temporary business use permit will give Dennis Thome up to five years to remove the approximately 100 vehicles that are on his property at 1036 East 1000 Road, south of Lawrence. Thome said the vehicles are a business investment, and the five years will give him time to sell all the vehicles.

The county has received numerous complaints from residents in the area, dating back to at least 2001 when a county codes enforcement officer documented about 20 vehicles on the property.

County commissioners did place a condition on the permit that requires Thome to show progress in reducing the number of vehicles on the property each year, or else the county could order him to immediately remove the vehicles.

In the past, a typical county code enforcement case would seek removal of the vehicles much more quickly than the five-year period. But Bauer said staff recognized that forcing immediate removal of the vehicles could place a real financial hardship on Thome, who had invested in the vehicles.

In other business, county commissioners:

• Received the 2021 audit of the county’s finances. The independent auditing firm Allen, Gibbs & Houlik gave the county a clean audit, stating that the county’s finances were in good order. The report did note one concern related to how the county approves purchase orders of less than $20,000.

Auditors noted that the person who creates a purchase order for that amount also can approve that purchase order. The audit said that’s not a best practice and that there should be a layer of separation between the person who makes a purchase order and the person who approves it.

County staff, however, stopped short of saying they would make any changes to the system. County Administrator Sarah Plinsky told the Journal-World that addressing the issue likely would require hiring additional staff in several small departments. The county said in its response to auditors that some departments are of a size that feasibility requires the department head to both enter and approve the purchase order. The response also noted that the county’s accounts payable department does review every invoice regardless of the dollar amount.

• Affirmed the county administrator’s recent submission of a letter of interest to apply for about $3 million of federal funding — in conjunction with the city of Lawrence — that could be used for supportive housing projects and creation of a special team to work with homeless residents. The letter is the first step in competing for the funding, which will be awarded through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

• Approved a site plan that will allow Camp Bromelsick — a nonprofit camp for Boy Scouts, Girls Scouts and other such groups at 1645 East 400 Road — to add some shade structures and covered picnic areas on the property.

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