Countywide zoning for renewable energy projects – including commercial wind and solar farms – along with imposing stricter flood zone regulations are among recommendations in a draft update to the Comprehensive Plan for Reno County.
The 70-page plan also proposes the county create a unified fire district with a single fire chief, that it evaluate low-volume roads for closure and that it creates a “township maintenance plan” for prioritizing joint county/township road projects.
The Reno County Commission, during a study session on the plan two weeks ago, had questions about the proposals but didn’t indicate whether they supported the ideas or not.
Developed by the Reno County Planning Commission with assistance from a consultant from Wichita, the plan also recommends development of a bicycle transportation plan in the short term, but delays development of an actual bicycle/pedestrian network for the long-term – or more than 10 years out.
The Planning Commission, which has been working on the draft since January, stopped short of recommending the county pursue total countywide zoning, though some members desired that.
The planning commission will meet Aug. 16 to review the County Commission's feedback and set a public hearing on the final draft, likely in September, with the adoption of the 10-year plan by the county commission in late September or October.
Wind and solar
During a final meeting of the planning commission on the draft before it went to the county commission, the body unanimously supported a specific recommendation to pursue countywide zoning just for wind and solar.
The county’s consultant, Russ Ewy, of Baughman and Co. in Wichita, however, backed off the suggestion when presenting the plan to the commission in July.
That was after Ewy talked with the consultant who helped the county develop its current zoning regulations. Dave Yearout advised creating zoning for just a single industry was perhaps not a good idea.
“He said ‘Of course you can’t do that. You can’t cherry pick uses,’” Ewy said. “There’s nothing definitive that says you can’t, but it’s a poor practice.”
Still, Ewy advised the commission that it was worth exploring, noting such regulations could be adopted in a few months if the commission decided to pursue it. He suggested having the planning commission “evaluate its merits and bring it back to you.”
Commissioner Dan Deming said the county should explore the issue sooner than later, since NextEra Energy is actively pursuing development of a wind farm in Reno County and may seek a conditional use permit, which is required in the zoned areas of the county, before the end of the year.
If successful for wind and solar, the county might also expand it for salvage yards and confined feeding operations, Ewy said.
Flood and fire
County Planner Mark Vonachen brought the idea of stricter flood regulations to the table after attending a flood conference sponsored by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“One of your jobs as a county commission is to protect people from harm,” Vonachen said. “Yet, if you approve a subdivision in a floodplain, you’re saying ‘this is a good place to build.’ They have to build one foot above (flood level), but that doesn’t mean it’s going to prevent flooding from coming in. The potential exists for all those homes to be destroyed.”
Setting a requirement that buildings must have two feet of freeboard above 100-year flood levels would better protect those investments, Vonachen said, and lower flood insurance premiums.
He has not explored, Vonachen admitted, how much of the cost of higher flood requirements regarding increased building costs are offset by lower insurance premiums, something Commissioner Bob Bush said should be done.
“It’s hard to say to a homeowner you need to add $10,000 to constructing your house so you can reduce your flood insurance $50 a month,” Bush said.
Vonachen also suggested the county explore a policy of buying out property that’s been flooded multiple times, to prevent rebuilding, or outright prohibit building in floodplains.
The intent, he said, is to eliminate the cost, risk, and liability of emergency personnel responding to property that repeatedly floods, and there are federal mitigation dollars available for such purchases with a 20 percent county match.
While the commission didn’t touch on the recommendation to consolidate county fire departments, a mid-term goal four to 10 years out which the plan notes would allow a district fire chief to coordinate staffing, equipment needs, and building locations, Bush suggested making the development of fire breaks around homes part of zoning codes.
That would be hard to impose on existing developments, particularly with the cost of tearing out rows of cedars, but it could be included in platting of any future developments – if the developments are within the zoned areas of the county, Vonachen said.
“Several years ago there was talk about preserving areas of the Sand Hills by not allowing mowing,” Vonachen noted.
“A lot of attitudes have changed with the fires going through that property,” Bush said. “We can ask (Hutchinson Fire Chief) Beer to come in and see what he thinks.”
Bush then suggested, it if it’s not regulated, having staff develop “best management practices” to provide to developers.
The plan includes several areas it is recommended the county develop cooperation on with other taxing entities in the county, from cities and towns to townships.
It suggests developing zones of extraterritorial jurisdiction around all larger communities, along with a “more definitive written annexation policy” that says if a municipality expands the infrastructure to property outside the city, the property must be annexed.
The plan proposes adoption of a policy that would prevent the county developing any new sewer or water districts and suggests maintenance and operation of some of the existing facilities – particularly the sewer plant under development at The Highlands – be taken over by that city.
The plan does not recommend the merger or elimination of any of the county’s townships, but it does suggest better cooperation among townships concerning sharing resources.
They also heard from several townships a desire to better coordinate the use of limited resources.
The other issue was having the county assist townships in developing road maintenance plans, to help prioritize road projects, Ewy said.
It proposes the county consider hiring a transportation engineering company to analyze the county road network “to identify segments which could be efficiently maintained by the townships.”
“We can see whether there’s any more efficient use of tax dollars by combining or by cooperation, but every township will have to make up their own mind about combining,” said Commission Chairman Ron Hirst.
The plan’s action items include encouraging development of a “bicycle transportation plan” in the next one to three years but puts off the creation of any bicycle or pedestrian networks as a long-term goal, in 11-plus years.
“I don’t have any trouble looking a policy for the future, but I do have a problem funding it without saying it’s economically feasible,” Bush said.
“It doesn’t mean a financial commitment,” Ewy said. “What it is encouraging is a plan. This is the third- or fourth-most talked about subject.”
The proposal does suggest establishing a policy on seeking KDOT funding for a bicycle network while encouraging private investment, rather than spending public dollars, Ewy said.
“We did hear feedback from the public that ‘we want a bicycle plan to know where it will go in the future,’” he said. “If it subsequently goes through, then you need to maintain certain areas for that. We’re absolutely not interested in having the county fund or sponsor it, but if a private group does produce something, we’d like the opportunity to stand before the commission and present it.”
The idea is not to mandate the development of bicycle paths, but tell the public the county supports alternative transportation and if other entities come forward with grants, that the county supports their development, Ewy said.
“When a project in the county like the 43rd Street bridge occurs, we’d at least like it to be discussed,” said Terry Bisbee, a member of the county’s bicycle committee who attended the meeting the comprehensive plan. “We all recognize the funding issues, but we at least want it thought about.”
Several commissioners expressed concern about the population declines projected in the plan, which included a projected 14 percent drop in municipal populations and 23 percent drop in unincorporated areas over the next 25 years. A separate Wichita State University study projects a 40 percent decline, Ewy said.
The only place in the county projected to grow is The Highlands, a newly incorporated city north of Hutchinson, and that’s based on the availability of existing home sites.
The trends for Reno County, however, Ewy noted, are better than in many areas of the state.
“What we found is the county is basically maintaining its status quo, as far as population,” he said. “It’s aging, but not any more than the state. The state of Kansas is suffering the same demographic future as Reno County. The whole Midwest is stagnating, as far as population growth.”
“Trends can change with the right type of employment base,” Ewy said. “For this plan, we assume that employment is static and the population will be back to some historical levels… What that tells us is there is no imminent need to sequester economic resources because of shrinking or a large public outlay of capital in response. Maintain the ship on its current course.”
While recognizing that the county should promote new business development and expansion, the plan advises encouraging developers to locate inside existing municipalities, rather than in rural areas. The reason is to prevent the cost of building and maintain new infrastructure. It recommends the county re-evaluate its use of the Enterprise Zone, Neighborhood Revitalization, and all other “economic development” laws, as tools to encourage new development. The county commission in the past has been reluctant to participate in Neighborhood Revitalization programs, finding their application often too broad and negatively impacting county valuation growth.
The plan suggests the county should work with providers to expand internet and cell phone service “to all of Reno County,” but steps back from recommending the county take an active role.
The plan recommends the county encourage the renovation and rehabilitation of housing, and removal of housing units deemed uninhabitable. It also suggests allowing greater use of manufactured homes.
The plan proposes the county better define its policy for public access to rivers in the county and that it do more to promote access.