Changing rural landscape
County’s planning office sees farmland going the way of development
Chris Dunn sees the rural area of the county as ripe for development.
"It's huge, huge, huge," said Dunn, Leavenworth County's director of planning and zoning.
"... I think we are sitting where Johnson County was sitting maybe 25 years ago. I'm not trying to forecast the future, but in this office we are thinking along the lines of 'Let's get our ducks in order and prepare for a boom.'"
In both 2004 and 2005, about 32 new plats came in, with a total of 375 housing lots, Dunn said. "You're adding about 175 new building He said that statistically, 2.3 people live in each home in the county.
"So you're putting 500 people in the rural area every year, based on building permits and platted lots," Dunn said, noting that most of the growth is in the southern portion of Leavenworth County.
New residents are attracted by the ease of commuting, as well as the cultural aspects of Lawrence, Kansas University and the Kansas City area, Dunn said.
"Tongie is in a really neat location," Dunn said. "It's got a small-town feeling and great people. It's kind of this undiscovered gem, in my way of thinking, in a lot of ways."
Mapping the growth
In his office on the lower level of the county courthouse, Dunn works surrounded by maps.
The maps show different scopes of the county.
On one map, dozens of yellow pins mark proposed rural developments. White pins mark cell phone towers. Cell phone towers are good indicators of future growth areas, Dunn said.
There are soil maps, zoning maps, school district maps, county commissioner maps, road maps, topography maps -- you name it. The maps, prepared by the county's GIS department, are close at hand -- whether tacked to the wall or appearing on his computer screen.
Though the maps signify different aspects of Leavenworth County, they show a commonality -- vast areas of undeveloped land, most of it farmland, that is ripe for development.
Dunn sees the county's landscape changing immensely in the next decades, as more farmers retire and their children, who may have settled in other careers in other areas, inherit family farms.
"I see fewer and fewer people with deep attachments to the land," Dunn said. "... As it (the land) cycles through the generations and we become more and more of a mobile society, the pressure to preserve it as open blocks of farmland is definitely going against them."
Many of the plats for developments that Dunn sees are presented by people who are in their 40s or 50s, Dunn said.
"They're children of that generation that actually farmed the land," Dunn said. "We see an awful lot of that. We see even some third generations where the parents have preserved it and their children are coming in looking at it like, 'This is land and I'm going to maximize my investment.'"
Not everyone who owns land is eager to develop. Dunn said he sees this about once a month as area farmers contact him.
"They've decided it's time for them to quit farming, Their children might not be interested in farming," Dunn said. "They (the farmers) always seem to have a certain reluctance about them to sell it off to a developer. ... But it's time to sell the farm, time to develop it or something in between."
Not planning to sell
John Martin lives along County Road 25, in southern Leavenworth County, on land that's been in his family since 1922. His land is in pasture that's managed by someone else.
He and his wife, Caroline, like to look out their picture window and watch the wildlife -- foxes, coyotes and deer.
Martin, who said he has no plans to sell the land, would like development to slow.
And, he said, he's against improving County Road 1 to use as a turnpike access road. Turnpike access would spur development along Country Road 1, as well as County Road 5, to the east. Leavenworth County commissioners and the Tonganoxie city council have voted in favor of using County Road 1 as a connector road to the turnpike.
But among county residents, it's not a popular idea, Martin said.
Some 80 years links Martin's family heritage to the land on which he lives. That's partly why, no matter how attractive his land might be for development, Martin, who described himself as an "old-timer," is not planning to sell -- at least not now.
However, he noted, his property taxes continue to rise.
"We're making ends meet now. But can we, in 10 years from now?" Martin said
Even if he ever would decide the property should be developed, Martin said he wouldn't take on the task himself.
"At my age I wouldn't want to," Martin said. "I'd probably turn it over to my kids -- they could do what they wanted to do."
Vanishing farm community
The rural area is not by and large a farming community anymore, Dunn said, noting that each year, fewer county residents make a living by farming.
"It's a thinner version of suburbia," Dunn said.
But the lure of the bucolic life, especially one that's accessible only by miles of gravel roads, can have a down side for former city residents.
"These folks tend to be used to higher levels of service," Dunn said. "And they're used to better roads."
It's unpaved roads that stir the ire of new rural residents.
"People who have been living in urban areas aren't used to driving down gravel roads," Dunn said. "They, in turn, put pressure on their elected officials saying, 'When are you going to pave my road.'"
It's costly to pave a road, Dunn said. And, he noted, some developments are several miles from a paved road.
"If you've got to do two miles of road to get people off your back, you're taking taxpayer funds and you're subsidizing this development out here to a very substantial tune," Dunn said.
Dunn said he understands developers' need to make a profit and he said, the county will work with them.
"We won't try to breathe that profit out of them," Dunn said. "We're not concerned about that -- we're just concerned that it's at least a break-even effort to the county, that taxpayers won't wind up having to subsidize it."
And when he looks at the maps on the wall -- the maps that show miles and miles of undeveloped rural land -- Dunn knows that as rural land continues being churned into developments, his work will be cut out for him.
"We get five or 10 calls a day asking what can I do with my land -- what are my options," Dunn said.
This is not a question that can be answered over the telephone, he added.
"If you really want to talk seriously about what your options are, come in, sit down with us," Dunn said. "We'll get out the maps, we'll pull out the regulations and we'll talk about a game plan. We're there to help you, we're not here to hinder you."
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