A conversation with Douglas County Commissioner Michelle Derusseau, including her thoughts on community growth

photo by: Mackenzie Clark

Douglas County Commission Chair Michelle Derusseau speaks during the commission's meeting on July 17, 2019.

My understanding of supply and demand mainly comes from simple experiments, like gathering my two kids at the dinner table and placing just one doughnut in between them. Indeed, the market is beautiful to watch. Leave it to free enterprise to figure out how to make a dining table fly across a room.

Lawrence and Douglas County, though, are about to embark on a more complicated supply and demand experiment. There is concern that the recently approved Plan 2040 comprehensive plan will make it harder to build new neighborhoods in Lawrence. The plan will encourage builders to either redevelop existing areas, or use the scattering of empty lots that exist across the city.

Supporters of the plan think it will help make housing affordable because they are convinced new residential growth often doesn’t pay for itself, thus new neighborhoods create more costs borne by everyone in the community. Opponents of the plan believe the opposite will happen — housing prices will rise as a lower supply of buildings lots will drive up the price on all those that remain.

It will take a few years, but eventually we’ll see in which room the table lands.

The future of Lawrence’s housing market was on my mind as I recently sat across a table from Douglas County Commission Chair Michelle Derusseau. I met with her earlier this month as part of my occasional “A Conversation With … ” series. We had a great chat, with probably the most interesting point being that even though Derusseau voted for Plan 2040, she shares some of the same concerns that the plan could increase the cost of housing. She left open the idea of softening the plan a bit, through the writing of the specific regulations that will give the plan its teeth.

That’s a reminder that this table will be airborne for awhile. Here’s a look at some of the highlights from my conversation with Michelle Derusseau:

Derusseau is worried that one part of Plan 2040 could increase the cost of housing. The plan does put a premium on using property that already is in the city limits rather than growing the city limits to accommodate new development. That is called infill development, and Derusseau said community leaders could go too far in promoting it.

“My concern with infill is that people are just going to increase the price of the property because that is the focus and that is the direction,” Derusseau said.

She also recognizes that if prices for building lots increase, the impacts of that will be felt widely in the community.

“That’s going to cost everybody,” she said, particularly noting that it would make efforts to build affordable housing more difficult.

Derusseau’s concerns sound very much like the concerns I’m hearing from many in the business and development community. People fear that prices on existing pieces of property will increase significantly if it becomes more difficult to annex new property in the city.

Given that Derusseau also has concerns that the plan could increase the price of housing, I asked her why she has supported the plan. In essence, she said because the plan is just a set of goals and she believes elected officials will use common sense in implementing them.

“I don’t have a problem promoting (infill,)” Derusseau said. “But we need to be careful that it doesn’t become the sole focus of saying no to other possibilities.”

That philosophy, though, will make the next part of the process critical — the writing of the actual regulations that will implement the goals in Plan 2040. Derusseau said she wants to have members of the development community — among other stakeholders — involved in crafting those regulations so that they can tell elected officials, “let’s be careful with that language.”

Derusseau is torn on the question of whether residential growth pays for itself.

“I don’t know,” Derusseau said when I posed it to her. “I do think it is a good question.”

That makes at least two elected officials who have acknowledged that they don’t know whether growth pays for itself. Mayor Lisa Larsen previously told the Journal-World that more local evidence was needed before that question could be put to rest in Lawrence.

But like Larsen, Derusseau said it wasn’t critical to get an answer to that question before approving Plan 2040.

“I think you just need to proceed with caution,” Derusseau said.

Part of that caution, she said, is recognizing the importance of flexibility in planning matters, and also recognizing the importance of growth in a community.

“If you aren’t growing, you probably are dying,” she said. “You can’t paint yourself into a corner and say we aren’t going to do this or do that. You just need to proceed with caution.”

Derusseau thinks the county government and city of Lawrence government eventually will start getting along better. Whether that means the city and the county might start consolidating some of their services is still an open question, though.

The answer may depend on how much the relationship improves over the next year or so. Derusseau mentioned the need to improve the agreements the city and the county have on joint departments like Lawrence Douglas County Fire & Medical and the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Department. The process the city used for appointing a new fire chief created concern with county leaders, and soon a search will begin for a new planning director.

Derusseau also called special attention to the Lawrence Community Shelter, which is privately operated but receives funding from both the city and the county to provide homeless services. The amount of funding each government provides has been a subject of some consternation.

County leaders probably will want to see less friction on issues like those before agreeing to consolidate more services with the city.

“I think we need to make sure what we have in place is working,” Derusseau said. “I think there is still going to be a big conversation about the Community Shelter.”

To be clear, the city and county aren’t on any path to have a true consolidated government, such as what exists in nearby Wyandotte County. Combining major departments like sheriff and police or public works also doesn’t appear likely. Derusseau expressed no interest in that type of major restructuring. She thinks there are just too many differences between the urban nature of the city of Lawrence and the roughly 420 square miles of rural, agricultural land that occupies the rest of Douglas County.

But when asked about the possible combination of some back-office type of functions that both governments have — think of payroll departments, IT staffs, purchasing professionals and others — Derusseau said there may be possibilities to explore.

First, though, is improved relations. She thinks the fact the city and the county both have new administrators will improve relations. She said she’s also meeting regularly with Mayor Larsen. Those meetings have been good, Derusseau said. She thinks the two governments are on the path to a better relationship.

“For some reason, there were a couple of things that became finger pointing, and it really wasn’t anything to point fingers at,” Derusseau said. “It wasn’t anybody’s fault. It is a ‘we’ situation. We really don’t want to get into what is happening nationally where everybody blames everybody else.”

Previously in this series:

April 12 — Town Talk: A conversation with Mayor Lisa Larsen on city-county cooperation, a new fire chief, downtown growth


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