Douglas County begins crafting Open Space Plan to guide protection, management of county’s natural lands

photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World

The Baker University Wetlands are an example of one type of natural land typically included in an open space plan. Douglas County leaders are currently working to develop their own plan to protect and manage natural lands throughout the county.

Douglas County is in the early stages of imagining an Open Space Plan for preserving natural landscapes located throughout the county.

Such a plan seeks to help guide the protection and management of natural lands. That can include areas like trails, native prairies, wetlands, wildlife habitats, agricultural lands and heritage sites.

The specific areas in Douglas County that might end up a part of that realized vision aren’t clear quite yet, county Zoning Director Tonya Voigt and interim Sustainability Director Kim Criner Ritchie told the Journal-World in a Zoom interview last week. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t some broader ideas already on the table.

Locally, Voigt said people want to protect sensitive lands — places like native prairies, floodways and floodplains, prime agricultural lands, and historic and archeological sites. Existing conservation work, like trail development at Black Jack Battlefield or a conservation easement at Wells Overlook, can provide examples of the type of future work we might see once the plan is complete, she said.

“The Open Space Plan obviously is not just a local government plan; there are already so many organizations that already have their boots on the ground in working on local land preservation efforts in Douglas County without us even being involved,” Voigt said.

The goal would be to facilitate work that connects communities, Voigt said. An example could be expanding the scope of the still-in-progress Lawrence Loop project. Instead of just a continuous 22-mile loop around the city limits, Voigt said a biking group has expressed interest in it extending around the entire county, possibly all the way to Lecompton.

Help and coordination from the county could be useful on projects like those, Voigt said. She said potential projects like those, ideally, would also serve multiple purposes. Rather than just creating a trail for recreational purposes, perhaps it could also provide protection for properties located in the county’s floodplain.

“That’s where we are, it’s that kind of collaborative effort that’s going to protect several different priorities for us in one project,” Voigt said.

It’s exciting to think about the possibilities, she said, but also worth noting that as the plan grows, land maintenance will become a heavier burden on resources at the county level. Voigt said Douglas County doesn’t have a parks and recreation department to task specifically with maintaining open spaces, so determining what to do about that maintenance will also be a part of the work.

It’ll be a three-phased process to ramp up efforts with those ideas in mind, according to the county, and some of the more tangible work — like designating target conservation areas, policy changes, or changes in organizational structure — isn’t on the docket until phase two. Phase three is when the plan will actually be implemented.

Eventually, Criner Ritchie said, the process should result in a guiding document outlining the county’s priorities, intended to help governmental bodies like the Douglas County Commission and its staff when making decisions concerning natural spaces.

The work will start with hiring “residential outreach consultants.” Their role will be to engage with their neighbors in unincorporated Douglas County, Eudora, Baldwin City, Lecompton and Lawrence to gather information about their first-hand experiences and desired priorities for land conservation throughout the county.

That aligns with some of the steps that are on the list for phase one — increasing outreach efforts and identifying a shared vision for the plan, in particular. Criner Ritchie said the hope is through that outreach, those consultants will help the county to better understand where the community’s values lie.

Part of that outreach will be working with landowners to set priorities moving forward based on those values, Voigt said. It’s a voluntary initiative, she said, and landowner participation will be a point of emphasis from start to finish to avoid any concerns from those folks regarding their property rights.

Studying existing data and policies and building relationships with key stakeholders are also points on the list for phase one.

A portion of the county’s website dedicated to explaining the plan’s development and implementation process notes there are a number of “pressures” directly affecting the landscape of the community: the destruction of a vast majority of original prairie and forest lands due to development and transportation infrastructure, more intense and frequent extreme weather events, and agricultural economic pressures.

It’s no surprise that factors like those have the county looking to coordinate the new Open Space plan with the Plan 2040 comprehensive plan approved by the county in late 2019; Criner Ritchie said they’re intended to weave together as the process plays out. Plan 2040, in part, calls for the community to identify specific actions that will reduce greenhouse gases, and manage air quality to limit indoor and outdoor air pollution and excess greenhouse gases. It also calls for the adoption of a climate action plan.

It was during the development of Plan 2040 that Voigt said she began hearing discussion of the need for an open space plan. While traveling throughout the county to update citizens on new zoning regulations, she said one of the biggest requests the office received from landowners was a need for a plan to protect and preserve lands that are important to the county.

“We just kept hearing that, over and over, from members of the community,” Voigt said.

Thus, Criner Ritchie said anything the county’s able to glean while crafting its Open Space Plan will overlap with the climate plan.

“These two overlapping plans have mutual values, and we’ll learn from both of them in the process,” Criner Ritchie said. “We’re looking forward to hearing from greater Douglas County about values around land use, extreme weather, pressures on development, and things like that.”

Community members who want to learn more about the project or share their thoughts about open space in the county can send an email to Voigt said that’s the ideal place to contact because those messages go to all three county offices involved with the project — sustainability, zoning and the Heritage Conservation Office.

People can also make donations via the Douglas County Community Foundation to the Open Space Fund, county spokesperson Karrey Britt told the Journal-World in an email. According to the donation page, contributions will help “spur needed planning and action to preserve our open spaces.”


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