Signs indicate changing rural landscape
Morning rises gently in the hills south of Tonganoxie.
A meadowlark sings from a power line, and at the sight of a vehicle stirring up dust on the gravel road, the bird glides toward her nest in the prairie grass. Geese fly in a V-shape overhead, their unison honking muffled by a light spring breeze. Ducks circle on a pond that reflects the morning sunrise. It's calving season -- mothers stand steady-legged as their calves arch their backs and romp in the soft morning light.
It's a decidedly rural setting.
Yet amid the bucolic sights and sounds, south of 214th and Stillwell Road, near a weathered swayback barn, are three specific signs of civilization -- signs that read "For Sale" -- signs that easily could portend the future of southern Leavenworth County.
Realtor Dave Thiel, Coldwell Banker, said the tracts of land he's selling there are about 50 acres each.
Though he declined to say the asking prices, he noted that in general, land on a gravel road in that part of the county sells from about $3,000 to $5,000 an acre.
Thiel said he's aware the Kansas Turnpike Authority recently announced plans to construct a turnpike interchange at County Road 1, about a mile from the properties. And he said he's heard the possibility that the 2,000-acre Tailgate Ranch to the north, owned by Paul and Elizabeth McKie, eventually may be annexed by the city of Tonganoxie.
"Obviously this will help (land) values," Thiel said. "But still, there's no sewer down there, it is still a gravel road, there's still a lot of things that have to happen before things (land prices) get too out of control."
However, Thiel predicted, southern Leavenworth County land will continue to be a good investment.
"Oh definitely, relative to Johnson County prices -- which is just across the river," Thiel said. "... In Johnson County, land is probably twice as high, at least. It's hard to find ground under $8,000, $9,000 or $10,000 an acre, and some of it will be higher."
But the values won't climb overnight, he said.
"I feel like we'll have good steady growth, but there's still a lot of issues that have to be dealt with as far as the infrastructure, the utilities and those things that have to be put in," Thiel said.
Magnets for growth
Dean Palos, Johnson County's planning director, said there's no doubt the turnpike interchange will spur growth.
"Roadways -- transportation corridors -- are magnets for growth," said Palos, who has been involved in Johnson County planning for 18 years, and before that, for the city of Lawrence.
But another key to growth is infrastructure, Palos said.
"Infrastructure is an important ingredient in any kind of development," Palos said. "The gravel roads, the lack of sewers, is going to preclude any kind of real major development."
Yet, Palos noted, roads, sewer lines and other services are expensive for cities to provide, especially when the annexed area is not contiguous to the city.
"The whole notion of smart growth is of a community trying to think in terms of sustainable development, development that's contiguous and trying to avoid sprawl -- to avoid leapfrog development," Palos said. "You get a little pocket of development here and a little pocket of development there, then you've got to provide emergency services, you've got new schools, you've got roads."
And, Palos said, there's the consideration of the additional traffic the county will see as a result of the turnpike interchange. In short, he said, planning is imperative.
"This is a good time for the community to step back and take a look at land-use planning, look at its community finances and decide how best to expend those finances," Palos said. "Because there's no question you're going to get development as a result of that (the turnpike interchange)."
While Palos said the interchange "is great for Leavenworth County and Tonganoxie," he said Johnson County is interested in the turnpike access, as well.
"Because what that's going to do is virtually connect K-10 (Kansas Highway 10) with I-70 and provide a possible shortcut for Johnson County residents who for years have wanted to find a shorter way around Lawrence, rather than having to go through Lawrence," Palos said. "Although they'd still probably have to go through Eudora, it would seem that it would be a quicker commute."
While undeveloped land, without infrastructure, might seem high at $5,000 an acre, Palos said it's much less pricey than in neighboring Johnson County.
"Johnson County acreage in the unincorporated areas without sewers is selling for $14,000 to $15,000 an acre," Palos said.
Leavenworth County isn't the only area where land is said to be a good buy.
Pia Friend Realtor Darrell Mooney said there's a demand for property between McLouth and Lawrence, in Jefferson County.
"Basically, there's a shortage of small, buildable tracts in southern Jefferson County, that's the problem," Mooney said. "People will pay -- I have a list of people looking -- but there's nothing out there. Everybody wants to have a Lawrence address and phone number, but would like to send their kids to McLouth schools. I think they really have a good reputation and the trend is that they like to have their kids in a small school district."
While land south of McLouth is ranging from $2,500 to $4,000 an acre, Mooney said that north of McLouth, it's going from $2,000 to about $2,500 an acre.
It's a fact of life that land values tend to be lower in Jefferson County than in Leavenworth County, Mooney said.
"It's just a little farther out," Mooney said. "It's just a little farther from Kansas City."
If distance isn't an issue, Mooney suggested taking a look north of Winchester, in Jefferson County, where, he said, "You can really get a good deal starting at $1,200 an acre."
And of course, there's plenty of interest in land between Tonganoxie and Basehor, he said.
For instance, Mooney, who lives in Lawrence, recently bought a house east of Tonganoxie. He was remodeling it to live in himself. But there's been so much interest in the property that he may end up selling it.
"I've had people pulling in there the last two weeks asking, 'Is this house is going to be for sale.'" Mooney said.
Palos said he expects this type of interest in the area to continue.
He noted that people who might have bought homes in Kansas City and its suburbs are moving farther out.
He noted that in 1999 Wyandotte County issued from 200 to 300 building permits.
"Now they're issuing close to 1,000. Gardner has gone from about 40 to around 500 building permits. They're kind of a location of affordable housing," Palos said. "And I suspect that that's kind of the same market that Basehor and Tonganoxie will be attracting."