Editorial: How far should Douglas County go to protect agriculture land?

photo by: Journal-World Photo Illustration

Lawrence Journal-World Editorial

Douglas County is blessed in many ways, and one of them, currently, is that it is predisposed to growth. We should be thankful the things that keep Douglas County leaders awake at night are different than the nightmares in most Kansas counties.

Here, we fret over downtown Lawrence not having a grocery store, while there are many places who worry their entire community won’t have one.

If other parts of the state pay attention to us at all, surely they must think we work hard at coming up with new things to worry about. Today’s meeting of the Douglas County Commission may give them more reason to shake their heads.

Commissioners at their meeting this afternoon are scheduled to adopt a temporary moratorium that will stop people from dividing their rural Douglas County properties to create new home sites. County commissioners are worried too many people may want to live in rural Douglas County.

More specifically, commissioners are worried that rural housing development — there were 58 residential building permits in rural Douglas County in 2018 — may violate a portion of the county’s comprehensive plan that says rural residential development “should protect and enhance the rural character” of the county. Commissioners also are concerned it may violate a pending change to the comprehensive plan that says county rules should “minimize agricultural land conversion to other nonagricultural uses.”

In other words, one of the primary goals of Douglas County leaders is to keep farmland used as farmland.

It is easy to understand the sentimental pull of that position, but it is tougher to justify when you drive around Kansas’ 105 counties. Upon doing so, it is clear that there are two problems Kansas as a whole likely will never face: Population overcrowding and a lack of agricultural land. A couple of facts for you: Of the 52 counties west of Wichita, only seven posted population growth last decade, and only eight had a population density of at least 10 people per square mile. That is really sparse. Even in the more fertile part of the state, 22 of the 39 counties east of Manhattan had population declines last decade.

Clearly, there are plenty of other counties taking on the role of conserving agricultural land in the state.

None of this is to say agriculture shouldn’t be important in Douglas County. Lawrence should invest more in being a business and research hub for the agriculture industry. And we shouldn’t seek to put farmers who want to farm here out of business. We should be glad to have them.

There is reason to question, though, whether the county’s proposed moratorium may actually hurt those agriculture producers. A few scenarios to consider:

• A struggling family farm needs cash flow. It has 10 acres of unproductive pasture ground that could fetch $50,000 if sold as a home site. Should a farm family not be allowed to use its assets in such a manner to help its farm business?

• An aging farm family has found younger family members who want to become operators of the farm. They want to provide them with land to build a home to be close to where they’ll work. Are we set to make that more difficult?

• County leaders already have said they want more small-scale farmers doing value-added agriculture. Wouldn’t it stand to reason that more small-scale farms will mean more people living in the county? Is it possible that allowing more people to live a rural lifestyle may be the best way to grow a crop of people who go on to become agriculture producers?

By all means, have sensible growth regulations. Don’t allow residential development in the floodplain, which often is some of the best cropland. Don’t let a mass of curb cuts make a rural road dangerous. Make sure residences have proper septic and water access. That’s all appropriate.

But instead of creating a moratorium, county commissioners should make themselves pause and consider what Douglas County’s larger role is in the state. Do we really need to be the place that protects agricultural land at the expense of residential growth? It seems that the winds of fate have said that is not our role.

Kansas desperately needs counties that will grow, or else families will continue to see an exodus of their young. Due to the university and other factors, we currently are predisposed to be one of those counties. In many ways, the most productive thing we can do for ourselves and the good of the state is to smartly embrace that role.


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