Sedgwick County Commission votes to participate in $1.5 million planning grant

Sedgwick County commissioners followed several hours of passionate debate and public input by voting 3-2 Wednesday to give final approval for the county’s participation in a federal grant for planning sustainable communities.

“It’s the right thing to do,” Commissioner David Unruh said before voting yes on a topic that evoked concerns over everything from property rights and French fries to the need for local planning.

Commissioners Richard Ranzau and Karl Peterjohn voted no.

“The EPA isn’t giving us this money free,” Ranzau said. “There’s an end game to this.”

The county was the first of the 23-member consortium to give its final approval for participation in the planning $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development through the Regional Economic Area Partnership. With their vote, commissioners also agreed to serve as the fiscal agent for the planning and confirmed the county would contribute $120,707 through in-kind services.

Wichita’s City Council is expected to be asked for its final approval later this month, said Joe Yager, REAP’s executive officer.

The consortium also includes Butler, Harvey, Reno and Sumner counties and their county seats, plus such groups as Wichita State University’s Hugo Wall School of Urban and Public Affairs, United Way and Visioneering Wichita.

As a group, the consortium is contributing $823,405 – all through in-kind services except for $50,000 in cash from the Kansas Health Foundation. Wichita’s in-kind share is $156,624.

The purpose of the planning is to “build regional capacity to compete in a global economy,” Schlegel said. Some of the planning targets include transportation, water and a healthy community, according to the agreement.

A broad definition for a sustainable community is “ensuring that future generations have the same opportunities we have today,” Yager said.

Public meetings will be held over the next three years to draw input from a wide variety of groups before implementation can be considered, said John Schlegel, director of city and county planning.

Ranzau said the area already has enough groups involved in regional planning and that accepting the money meant accepting direction from the White House.

A packed meeting room included at least four state representatives from Wichita. They were among the 22 citizens who spoke, often passionately, against the grant. One speaker, Dane Baxa, a member of Visioneering Wichita and REAP’s water planning group, supported the grant.

Most of the objections centered on concerns about the federal government — the Environmental Protection Agency specifically — controlling what happens locally with growth. Restricting property rights because of land-use requirements and forced use of public transportation were among the top claims.

“Is it really in our best interest to have federal agencies at the table?” asked Kent Winter, president of the Sedgwick County Farm Bureau. “Money is never free. This money comes with strings attached that go all the way back to Washington.”

Helen Cochran told the commission to “show some moral courage and say, `Thanks but no thanks.’ We are Americans. Property rights are an inalienable right. If we take this, what’s next? No French fries at McDonald’s?”

Yager said, “This grant doesn’t obligate us to any federal oversight. We aren’t creating; this is a planning thing.”

In response to questioning from Commissioner Jim Skelton, Schlegel said many of the concerns are over regulations that already exist in federal law with the clean air and water acts.

“I think a lot of fear gets expressed in our community because we haven’t had EPA paying much attention to south-central Kansas until now,” Schlegel said. “And we don’t like that.”

Participating in the grant doesn’t give the EPA any more legal authority over the area than it has now, County Counselor Richard Euson told Skelton in response to a question.

Skelton said, “I see nothing about this plan that hurts property rights.” Then turning to Ranzau, he added, “You’re going to have to sell me harder.”

“This isn’t about planning; it’s about control (by the federal government),” Ranzau replied.

He also said sustainable growth will result in higher taxes and housing costs, more regulation and violation of property rights, and that participation in the planning grant only opens the door for more problems when grants are offered for implementation.

Skelton wasn’t buying it. He voted for a similar grant two years ago when he served on the City Council, although REAP didn’t receive the grant.

He said after the meeting that many of the objections offered by Ranzau and others were “hearsay.”

“That’s a huge launch of misinformation for the public,” Skelton said.

He was also incensed when Joseph Scapa, one of the state representatives from Wichita who spoke, mentioned that a resolution being considered by a state House committee would reject sustainable development policies.

“To have some members of the state legislature saying they’re going to have a resolution without even discussing it with the chamber, city council, county commission or REAP. . .that’s a disservice,” Skelton said. “That’s operating on rumors.”

Some speakers suggested that sustainable growth means moving closer to the core of cities, giving up cars and using bicycles or public transportation.

“I have nothing against bicycling,” Peterjohn said. “It’s great exercise. But I don’t want to do it when it’s freezing in January. We shouldn’t push people into public transportation.”

Commission chairman Tim Norton said he doesn’t take sustainability “for more than what it is – that my five kids and seven grandkids will still enjoy living in Sedgwick County in years to come.”

Any plan would have to come back to the commission for approval in three years before being implemented.

“If there are elements of it we don’t endorse,” Norton said, “then we won’t accept them. I have every intention of attending a lot of those meetings and hearing first-hand and to offer an invitation to those unusual voices that don’t show up.”

Ranzau said he was disappointed by the vote but wasn’t surprised.

“Plan B is to try to control it,” he said, “but that’s certainly less than ideal. The best way is to keep them (the federal government) out to begin with.”

The grant pays to hire two additional WSU staff to help with the project and to hire a firm for marketing and communications to develop community input, said Yager, who is on WSU’s Hugo Wall School staff and contracted to work for REAP.

REAP actually accepted the grant Feb. 15 and planned to move forward regardless of the county’s participation, Yager said.