County growth causes concern

Both boon and bane are seen in increases in population.
Monday, March 7, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 8:58 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

At the center of Harrisburg, Palmer’s Market is not only a gas station, convenience store and restaurant, but also a town square. This is where many people in the town of 184 gather to exchange news and gossip over a cup of coffee and a bite to eat.

“When they walk in the door, we can say, ‘Hey, Bill!’ ‘How you doing, Dale?’ ‘Hello, Toby,’ ” market owner Dana Palmer said. “That’s what I like about living here. Everybody knows everybody.”

At least they used to. Palmer said she and the regulars who sit down for breakfast around 6 a.m. are seeing a growing number of new faces. Although that’s good for business, it erodes the intimacy of the small town to which Palmer retreated to raise her 6-year-old son. The town is growing, and Palmer showed concern that there might not be the same sense of neighbors watching out for each other and their children. “I hate to see a lot of growth up here,” Palmer said. “Now, if my son is doing something wrong, I may not hear it from him, but I’ll hear about it eventually.”

As Columbia expands from the center of Boone County, residents of rural areas are debating the merits of growth. Some say it’s a good thing and invite it with open arms. Others say county government should do what it can to choke it off.

Should there be legal restraints on growth

Palmer is resigned to the changes happening in Harrisburg, in part because she’s a staunch believer in property rights; she said she does not think the county should restrict development. Palmer’s Market regular Bill Ellis predicts the disappearance of country life in Boone County.

“In 20 years, Harrisburg is going to be 30 or 40 times the size that it is today,” Ellis said. “The country will be gone, and it will just be a suburb of Columbia.”

Not everyone, however, is ready to give in. Carl Freiling, an Ashland Realtor and member of the Boone County Planning and Zoning Commission, is holding out.

“A lot of people came here to get away from St. Louis and Kansas City, so we don’t need to re-create that,” Freiling said. “If that’s the type of place you want to live, there are places to go. Boone County should not become an urban area.”

Freiling favors some sort of legal restraint on growth in Boone County. Rocheport resident Brett Dufur, whose Pebble Publishing Inc. prints books about the Katy Trail and other outdoor recreation and historical areas, likes the sound of that.

“I remember when Columbia used to be a leader nationally in terms of its environmental awareness,” Dufur said. “But then 10 years ago, when Columbia started to get on lists of top places to live and big developers started to come in, Columbia lost some of that glow of being a bastion of environmental awareness.”

Dufur said he hopes growth can occur with leaders keeping preservation of the area’s natural and historical resources in mind. That, he said, means limiting the types of development allowed and restricting development in environmentally sensitive areas.

Karen Miller, Boone County Southern District commissioner, said she would support further restrictions on growth, particularly those that would respect the boundaries of natural areas.

Pat Smith, a longtime county resident and chairwoman of the county Planning and Zoning Commission, said restrictions on growth maintain county residents’ quality of life, but most don’t want government dictating how they use their land.

“There’s this feeling that if I like burning trees in my yard, I should be able to do that,” Smith said. “I have my piece of ground, and I don’t like having people tell me what I can do with it.”

Dufur and Palmer acknowledged the benefits of growth. For the first time in 50 years, Dufur noted, there are viable businesses in all of downtown Rocheport’s storefronts. Restricting growth would choke off that business, eliminating important revenue.

That’s especially true in Ashland, where residential development is rampant but commercial development has lagged. The town scrapes by on a shoestring budget of only $1.8 million a year.

Ashland’s growth helped attract two businesses in the past year, a McDonald’s and Moser’s grocery store, which have added $40,000, or 25 percent, to the city’s sales tax revenue. City Manager Ken Eftink said the town council hopes to use the money to invest more in the police department.

“We have a lot of turnover in our police department,” Eftink said. “When we find a good officer, we have trouble keeping them because our salaries aren’t competitive.”

Growth, however, carries environmental costs. Ashland is straining its wastewater treatment capacity. Though the town is trying to secure state and federal money and work with the Boone County Regional Sewer District to build a regional treatment facility, the project is moving ahead at bureaucratic speed. Meanwhile, growth shows no sign of slowing; 70 new homes were built in Ashland in 2004, compared with 38 in 1995.

Although Eftink said he fully expects Columbia and Ashland’s boundaries to meet within the next 15 years, he dismissed any talk of the need to control growth. Miller, however, said the county can’t afford not to be more aggressive about restricting sprawl.

“We are way behind,” Miller said. “We need to start finding a way to identify prime agricultural lands and other natural resources and find a way to preserve them.”

Freiling likes transferable development rights, an idea that’s gaining support on the county’s Planning and Zoning Commission. Such a program would assign each parcel of land limited development rights that could be bought and sold according to market demand. A farmer who wants to keep his land for agricultural use in perpetuity, for example, could sell a portion of his development rights to someone who wants to build multifamily residences on another property that lacks adequate development rights. That way, the farmer’s land is preserved, but he is able to benefit from its value.

The long-term goal of transferable development rights is to direct development away from environmentally sensitive and historically significant areas. Freiling said such a program should be voluntary, be implemented gradually and allow plenty of public comment.

Many other planning issues, such as deciding appropriate development densities, must happen first. Miller said the city and county need a comprehensive plan for dealing with development on Columbia’s fringes. The city and county planning commission’s efforts thus far have yielded little fruit, however.

“State statutes limit the level of cooperation we can have,” Smith said. But she said city commissioners “don’t even want to play.”

Freiling expressed frustration but remains hopeful.

“If we start negotiating over the general public welfare instead of fighting over the discretionary power of Columbia, there is a lot we can do, and it will be better for Boone County and the people who live here,” he said.

“I think it is very realistic in the future that half of Boone County could be set aside for preservation. … The residents of Boone County shouldn’t have to drive to the Ozarks to see Missouri the way that their father and grandfather saw it.”

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