This home was built prior to the new 40-acre requirement with a similar home about 150 feet away. They have well-maintained properties, and many other examples like these exist that show responsible home development in rural Seward County.
LEADER & TIMES ANALYSIS REPORT
By EARL WATT
• Leader & Times
Just a few short years ago, homes were popping up in rural Seward County, some like beautiful wildflowers, others like weeds.
To create conformity, and to insure public safety in some cases, the Seward County Commission adopted a new set of regulations in 2008 and started a crackdown on enforcement. Those new regulations, like a pesticide, were designed to get rid of a problem, but the poison may have killed some of the crop as well.
Some of the restrictive rules have caused certain housing developments to cease or never build at all rather than simply preventing the worst types of housing developments.
And those who built homes on smaller tracts of land a few short years ago could not do the same today.
Before the new regulations, some districts developed as what are referred to by some as “compounds.” A farmer might have built a home for his children on his land.
But the new regulations make that impossible without a variance from the Seward County Commission.
The new regulations also established a limit of development of one dwelling on 40 acres.
Prior to that, there were homes built closer together with positive and negative outcomes.
In some cases, like the homes along Doonan Road, trailer houses were placed closely together, animals exposed the ground to the high Kansas winds, and some of the homes fell into disrepair with all windows boarded and no skirting. If the homes were in the city limits they would have been condemned.
But Marcie Weatherly, who is responsible for enforcing the regulations, had a serious dilemma.
“If you condemn them, where do they go?” she said.
The 40-acre restriction would prevent such a problem from occurring, and some believe the rules have not gone far enough to solve the issues.
But, it also is stopping the development of $1 million worth of construction in three homes.
Don and Nancy Parsons purchased 160 acres and planned to divide the area into 20-acre plots. This would provide homeowners the opportunity to experience country living which has become a new trend for those who are escaping the coasts and concentrated populations.
Some of these new Kansans are willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on their country home. One of the homes the Parsons were developing was a $500,000 structure, but the homes were placed on 20-acre units.
In other areas of the county, homes are much closer than the new 40-acre rule. Most of the homes are quality-built structures with attractive yards. But a majority of the homes in the county would not have been built if the new rules applied several decades ago.
“Something allowed 10 years ago is no longer allowed,” Weatherly said. “But if it already exists, we’re not going to say, ‘You have to tear your house down.’ It may have been legal, it may not have been, I can’t say. All I can do is enforce what is currently adopted.”
The current regulations and restrictions have limited the Parsons in developing property that is assigned as agricultural but has not been used for farming for decades. The land sets vacant other than wild plants. And the prevention of the home developments means the county, school and college cannot collect high taxes if the property had improvements. At the estimated $1 million in housing that has been proposed, the various taxing entities would be able to collect more than $11,000 per year on the homes alone. If other improvements, like barns, storages sheds or other buildings were erected, more tax dollars could be collected.
But the restrictions have prevented development, and that means the tax burden on the county falls on those who already have built homes.
But Weatherly doesn’t have the flexibility to decide which rules to follow. As the enforcement officer, she has to make sure the regulations are upheld.
“It is a document that was adopted by the Board of County Commissioners three years ago,” she said. “As we go through the process, as people request variances or changes, we have a process for that. It is up to the county commissioners to allow those or to change the regulations.”
After three years, it might be time to reconsider those aspects that limit investment in the county while trying to prevent the dangerous growth that has occurred in some rural areas.
“We don’t want to have another Bluebell,” Don Parsons said. “We want to prevent that. We’re trying to develop housing that would make the area proud.”
By limiting the lot sizes to 20 acres instead of 40, the situation along Doonan Road would be avoided while allowing a quarter section to have no more than eight homes.
Currently, dense population in the county is not a problem. There is only one person for every 126 acres outside of Liberal in Seward County. In Liberal, there are four people to every acre, or 504 people to 126 acres.
If developments like the Parsons, who had to have the plans pre-approved on the type of homes, were approved for construction on 20 acre-plots, the county could see an increase in property valuation by several million dollars, which would add to the tax base and ease the overall burden on all residents, including those who live in the cities of Liberal and Kismet.
By restricting even high-end development, the county will have to fund its activities solely with the taxpayers that currently exist.
The key benefit to the new regulations is that enforcement is taking place, and that alone can prevent dangerous living conditions.
Lot size may be something that can be revisited since there are examples throughout the county where homeowners have made a positive impact by building and maintaining quality homes while taking care of the land on parcels smaller than 40 acres.
While Weatherly will enforce the approved regulations, just as they were revisited in 2008, she said there was always the opportunity to reconsider any of the provisions.
“It is a document that can be changed,” she said.