Editorial: New growth regulations put pressure on the city to actually grow

photo by: Journal-World Photo Illustration

Lawrence Journal-World Editorial

County and city commissioners are correct that certain types of development near the edges of the Lawrence city limits can make it difficult and expensive for Lawrence to grow in an orderly fashion in the future.

If you allow a significant number of 3 -to 5-acre homesites to be built along the edge of the city, it can make it very difficult to build streets, sewers and other infrastructure that a growing city needs to function.

Thus, there is some logic in the regulations that were recently approved by both commissions. Those regulations greatly limit the ability for property owners to build those rural homes near the city limits, and generally say property owners need to get their lands annexed into the city limits if they want to pursue residential development.

That doesn’t mean it is a particularly appealing solution, though. There were less aggressive ways to do this. But two bodies comprised entirely of individuals who live in the city of Lawrence came up with a solution that protects that community’s interests but may well create problems for rural residents who are trying to manage their lives and interests.

Think of farmers for a moment — a group pretty critical to the much-talked-about idea of preserving agricultural land in Douglas County. The new regulations make it harder for them to sell a small piece of land for some cash flow.

Instead, they create a greater likelihood that farmers will need to sell large chunks. In the past, farmers could sell a few acres at a time Those buyers generally were people who wanted to build a rural home or two.

Now, with the requirement the property must be annexed into the city, the buyers of such property are going to be full-fledged developers and annexing a couple of acres at a time into the city limits isn’t profitable. There will be much more pressure on farmers to sell large chunks of their land.

So, these regulations are far from perfect, but growth is rarely perfect. A group of city-dominated commissioners, essentially, have asked rural landowners to live with that premise — growth is rarely perfect.

Now, it is incumbent upon those city commissioners to also live with the same premise.

These regulations create new pressures and expectations that the city of Lawrence is going to allow annexations and become more aggressive in addressing the lack of supply of new homes in Lawrence. It creates an expectation that Lawrence is going to live up to its role in the state of being one of the few communities that are predisposed to growth.

But, are our leaders of such a mindset? We should get some answers soon. Here are three canaries we can send into the coal mine for an answer:

• In the development community, it is clear that the hundreds of acres just west of Bob Billings and the SLT interchange could provide a much needed boost in the supply of residential building lots. It also is clear that the way to do such a development is a large scale annexation of a few hundred acres that can be masterplanned for efficiency. Will the city really be comfortable annexing a few hundred acres for development?

• The city talks about infill development, yet a large swath of the southern end of downtown — the former Allen Press property — basically has been blighted and awaiting redevelopment for years. The property owner is on at least his third developer in trying to get the property redeveloped. Each time the city finds a way to get to “no” on plans for infill development on that site. Will the city feel any more pressure to get to “yes” this time?

• The intersection of the SLT and Iowa Street is one of the most improved intersections in all of Douglas County, and it was more than 20 years in the making. Yet, the city has never been able to figure out what type of development should be allowed at this intersection that has been the site of more than $100 million of federal and state investments. Retail is a logical choice for the site, yet the city turns it down. If not that, then what? What is completely illogical is that the city still doesn’t know what it wants for that property, especially since parts of the vacant land have been annexed into the city for decades.

Lawrence is a great place, but it won’t be forever if we remain fixated on the search for perfect.

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