BOONE COUNTY — Anyone who's driven around rural Boone County will tell you there's no shortage of "for sale" signs. Small estate tracts of two, three, five or 10 acres with attractive building sites seem to be available most everywhere. It's no secret that they're popular. Rural property for years has been broken up into smaller tracts, where people can build homes with no neighbors in sight and enjoy a small piece of the country.
Sid Sullivan, who is challenging incumbent Boone County Southern District Commissioner Karen Miller in Tuesday's primary, said that's a problem. Allowing scattered residential development, he said, threatens to destroy the county's agricultural landscape, makes it expensive to provide necessary infrastructure and points to shortcomings in county government's land-use planning.
"The big issues facing Boone County are growth and how we're growing," Sullivan said, arguing that the county commission must take more of a leadership role in planning ahead for undeveloped land.
That's why Sullivan proposes comprehensive planning that goes beyond zoning regulations and the county's master plan, which was last updated in 1996. Sullivan said the plan's sweeping statements aren't enough.
"A master plan is a model or constitution by which we all agree to live," he said.
Sullivan said every master plan should do three things: identify residential, commercial and industrial zoned areas; figure out the best places for parks, fire stations and other facilities; and determine how to best connect the two with roads.
"The simplest model with planning is that you understand your land use," he said. "Then you can take out the shovel and dig."
Miller disagrees. A spiral-bound copy of the master plan sits on the top shelf of a bookcase in her office, and she was a commissioner when it was completed in 1996.
"The master plan is a guide, not a set-in-stone thing, but where we are and where the infrastructure is," she said. "It's more important that we update regulations, which are prescriptive."
Specific land-use plans don't belong in the master plan, Miller said.
Miller said the county's infrastructure requirements are enough to control new developments. Sewers, roads and utilities must be taken care of before construction can begin. Natural elements can be preserved with policies such as the stream-buffer ordinance. She said that it's more important to update regulations than rewrite the master plan and that it's not the county's job to tell developers how to use their land.
"I don't think it would be responsible to take the county and say this A-1 zoned property is going to be houses," Miller said. "It's like telling developers you know better than them what's going to sell."
One example of the planning Sullivan envisions is the idea of clustered development, which encourages builders to put houses closer together in one area of a tract and to leave the remaining land untouched. Sullivan said that would allow people access to city-level utilities, and they could still enjoy living in an open-air, rural area. Clustered development is allowed but not required within the county's zoning regulations.
Sullivan said he doesn't want to mandate clustered development but to provide incentives for developers to use the plan. Developers who agree to set aside land could be eligible for tax credits, and clustered designs would mean more homes to sell. The developed part of the land could be hidden from major roads, he said, which would preserve its rural character.
When grouped together, this kind of development could yield "rural villages" with walkable elementary schools and neighborhood services.
"The county needs to have two standards - one for the fringes of the city and one for out in the county," he said.
Both Miller and Sullivan acknowledged that the current development climate is hurting. Construction costs are up, and the county has had no preliminary meetings for any imminent developments, according to Planning and Building Director Stan Shawver.
For Miller, that means development won't be a major threat in the next few years.
"The economy is tight," Miller said. "The regulations require lots of infrastructure - you have to have pretty deep pockets, and the banks have tightened up unless you have cash in hand."
But Sullivan said now is the time to act. He fears farmland is in jeopardy if the county fails to think ahead.
"With the energy cost concerns today, it's important to have nearby farms," he said. "You can't maintain a rural area without planning for it."