Editorial: City commissioners were wise to delay growth plan; now they should dig deeper
photo by: Journal-World Photo Illustration
Lawrence city commissioners deserve credit for hitting the pause button on a proposed growth plan that could, unintentionally, make our community a less affordable place to live.
At their meeting last week, commissioners declined to give final approval to Plan 2040, the proposed comprehensive plan that would guide growth and development in Lawrence and rural Douglas County for the next couple of decades.
Specifically, commissioners said they wanted adjustments made to one part of the plan that discusses when the City of Lawrence should grow its borders by annexing new land. The proposed plan generally called for new restrictions on when the city should annex new land. It said developers should have to demonstrate some sort of “community benefit” before an annexation would be approved.
That portion of the plan has been contentious. It has led a fair number of people to ask a fair question: Doesn’t development, in and of itself, provide some community benefits? If done well, it provides newer, safer, more efficient places for people to reside, and it provides opportunities for more people to live in our community, which broadens the tax base that pays for schools, services and amenities that we generally either need or want.
Until last week’s meeting, however, that question wasn’t resonating with city commissioners. But City Commissioner Matthew Herbert deserves credit for framing it in a way to get his fellow commissioners’ attention. Herbert reminded fellow leaders that regardless of whether we love the market or not, it will shape our community in many ways. If we have evidence that the market for usable residential building lots, for example, is tight, that can cause the price of homes throughout the community to increase significantly. If an annexation would make more usable residential lots available, rising prices could be mitigated. Homes that are more affordable than they would be otherwise surely are a community benefit.
More precisely, Herbert argued that annexations should be considered if they are shown to help meet a market demand. Commissioners were interested enough in the idea to delay passage of the plan. Commissioner Jennifer Ananda also asked for changes in the plan so that it acknowledges that state law gives city commissioners broad discretion in whether to annex property.
That is important language to add to the plan. Indeed, this plan really won’t stop future commissions from approving annexations. One thing that has remained true about comprehensive plans is they can always be bent to meet the political wishes of the day.
In one regard, the plan’s importance is as a gauge of the current sentiment of the community’s leaders. In that sense, it has been concerning because it indicates leaders are undervaluing the importance of residential growth. It would be unfair to say that such leaders are against growth in any form. (We’ve had the growth vs. no growth debate before, and it really isn’t helpful. Both sides are full of good people who want what is best for this community.)
Rather, there are leaders who believe certain types of residential growth don’t pay for themselves. There may be truth in that, but the problem is so much of this seemingly is based on guesswork. When asked for the evidence that growth isn’t paying for itself in Lawrence, the answers have been vague (studies that aren’t specific to Lawrence) to nonexistent.
City commissioners should use this delay to seek such evidence. What are leaders seeing that tell them growth isn’t paying for itself? Is it our rising local tax rates, even though communities that aren’t growing see those too? Is it our rising water rates, even though growing Johnson County has rates that have increased much less than ours? Is it a high number of vacancies and blighted neighborhoods? Is it something else?
Step one is figuring out what problems we think subsidized growth is causing. Step two would be a thorough evaluation of how much growth is contributing to those problems. Is it entirely responsible for those problems, or are some of them fueled by the community’s desire for certain amenities that are costly?
Perhaps city commissioners will delay this part of Plan 2040 until such work is done. If not, we will be using guesswork to guide a large part of our future.