Rep. Emil Bergquist, R-Park City, chaired a meeting of the House Local Government Committee to consider a bill repealing the right of cities to extend zoning regulations up to three miles into unincorporated areas beyond city limits. His committee also heard testimony on a bill allowing county residents within the three-mile radius to vote in city elections. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — Rep. Tim Johnson recalled fervor of protests three years ago when Leavenworth County residents rebelled against being bombarded by City of Basehor zoning regulations applicable to property up to three miles outside city limits.
“There were pitchforks, people holding torches and they had one of the local roofers with his tar equipment outside,” said the Republican House member from Bonner Springs. “Somebody was ripping up pillows for, I guess, feathers. I was thinking about getting a match to help light those torches.”
It didn’t come to tar-and-feather vigilantism, he said, but consternation with Kansas law giving cities zoning and planning authority in a three-mile band surrounding cities remained a troubling fact of life. While city regulations applied to residents and businesses in that county bandwidth, he said, people residing in the unincorporated region didn’t have legal right to vote in city council and mayoral races or on city taxation or bonding issues.
The House Local Government Committee began examination Wednesday of House Bill 2150. It would repeal the three-mile law available to city councils and grant zoning and planning authority within that territory to county commissions. The bill was endorsed by two dozen House Republicans and one House Democrat.
Opposition came from representatives of more than a dozen cities, including Wichita, Manhattan, Clay Center, Moundridge, Overland Park, McLouth, Derby, Lawrence, Topeka, Scott City and Maize.
Spencer Duncan, governmental affairs director of the League of Kansas Municipalities, said amendment of state law could undermine municipal utility agreements, projects financed through bonding, state or federal regulatory practices, metropolitan or regional planning commissions and joint city and county infrastructure collaboration.
“A change of this magnitude needs significant study,” Duncan said. “The impact of this change would be long-lasting, impact the lives of tens of thousands of Kansans and alter a myriad of ways cities and counties currently operate.”
Bradley Pendergast, city administrator in Scott City, said he opposed the House bill because his growing community in southwest Kansas had an interest in making certain areas beyond the current boundary were regulated in a way that didn’t compromise infrastructure expansion if later annexed into the city. He said the county commission didn’t have a planning commission and passage of the bill would leave the area outside Scott City without proper oversight.
“The three-mile zone helps the city ensure that the health, safety and quality of life of our citizens are taken into consideration when projects are proposed,” Pendergast said.
Absurd ban on barbed wire?
Angel Cushing, of Allen, said she supported the House bill repealing the three-mile zone because current state law essentially made county government subservent to city government. She said Lyon County officials tended to surrender authority to Emporia when deciding regulations on zoning and planning.
In 2019, she said, it came to her attention Emporia was contemplating a countywide rule that would forbid barbed wire and electric fencing.
“We still have atrocious regulations for the city that are applied to the county,” Cushing said. “This is a theft of representation.”
Rep. Eric Smith, a Burlington Republican, was among five House GOP members offering testimony in support of doing away with the three-mile standard. He said failure to inhibit urban sprawl was detrimental to people who chose to live outside cities and the three-mile rule contributed to the problem.
“If we’re not willing to stop that — if we’re going to allow the urban values and needs to override those of families that have owned property for decades, generations even — what are we willing to do?” Smith said. “We need to repeal this in the interests of these property owners.”
Rep. Ken Corbet, R-Topeka, compared existing state law on city zoning of rural areas to a Kansas resident forced to abide by mandates of Missouri regulators.
A voting rights alternative
An alternative bill was introduced by Great Bend Republican Rep. Tory Marie Blew that would require a city relying on the three-mile regulatory scheme to allow people living outside the city in that enclosure to vote in municipal elections and run for local public office. Under House Bill 2145, Blew would require city council districts to be redrawn.
Blew said the issue became personal after building a shed on property within a three miles of Great Bend. A city inspector inquired as to why she didn’t secure a permit for the structure. She described the permit requirement as a “little ridiculous.”
“If you live in this area, you should have a voice,” Blew said. “If we are going to have to abide by city ordinances, then we should be able to vote on the issues as well.”
Duncan, the lobbyist with the League of Kansas Municipalities, said the organization objected to a fundamental change in the voting process.
“It would water down the rights of those who choose to live in a city by granting voting authority to those who choose not to live in a city and don’t have to follow those laws or pay city taxes,” he said. “The primary reason city residents vote on county commissioners is because they have taxing authority over city residents. The reverse is not true. Taxation without representation is not acceptable, but neither is representation without taxation.”
The House committee didn’t take action on either of the city-county zoning reform bills.
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