They don’t need their own City Hall, but residents of what would become the newest town in Kansas said they must establish their own city limits to protect their endangered rural lifestyles.
Dozens of those who live in the unincorporated outskirts of a sprawling industrial park in southwestern Johnson County asked to form their own city in hopes of stopping — or at least slowing — the ever-encroaching development of industrial warehouses.
Opposition to the massive Logistics Park Kansas City intermodal facility has been brewing for months. But it has only boiled over as the industrial park hopped over Interstate 35, coming closer to the rural homes that people bought to be surrounded by fields and pasture — not giant warehouses and semi trucks.
Despite objections from dozens of homeowners, the Edgerton City Council earlier this year agreed to rezone nearly 700 acres of rural land to make way for more industrial properties south of Interstate 35. The residents outside of Edgerton city limits hope that incorporating into their own town will help them determine their own fates.
“Our area is too beautiful, it is too important for the environment, and it’s our right,” said Jennifer Williams, who has led the effort. “So we wanted to find out what we could do to seal up that border so it puts the decisions back into the hands of the residents.”
Williams, who lives in rural Spring Hill, said she and other neighbors haven’t had any input into decisions about neighboring land as elected leaders miles away in Edgerton annex and rezone more and more land for new industrial development. She filed the petition on behalf of roughly 300 Miami County residents to create the new city of Golden.
Residents fighting to preserve their land
About 200 people gathered in the Paola Middle School auditorium on Wednesday for a four-hour hearing on the new city. Many wore bright yellow “We are Golden” T-shirts or passed out magnets with the town’s name.
Incorporation of the new city requires a unanimous vote of the five-member Miami County Board of Commissioners. But officials said that Commissioner Danny Gallagher has recused himself from discussions and the vote, concerned about a conflict of interest.
Residents said they are fighting to preserve their land, so they can continue to see the stars at night, and so their children can play outside without semi trucks driving by on rural roads.
“We all love our place and we want to preserve it,” Williams said. “We all want to have the opportunity for having a vote in the future.”
Tara Ingel, a Paola Middle School teacher, said the new city aims to “maintain roads, keep semi truck traffic to a minimum and protect the Hillsdale watershed.”
Earlier this year, Chris Cardwell, an urban conservationist with the Miami County Conservation District, told the Edgerton City Council that the industrial development could cause irreparable harm to the Hillsdale watershed, which is the source of drinking water for more than 56,000 people.
Jerot Pearson, developer of the Hidden Prairie subdivision which would be located in Golden, said the new city would allow residents to protect their property rights over the long term.
“What is north of the county line, what is coming from the metro Kansas City area, it is a machine that’s moving south,” he said. “Basically the citizens are sitting ducks with no control.”
Some argue new city sets a ‘dangerous precedent’
While backers said the idea has gained the support of the majority of residents within the town’s potential boundaries, some organized opposition has emerged. On Wednesday, nearly 40 people spoke at the hearing, but only a few urged the commission to deny the request to form the new town.
Attorney Darcy Domoney of Paola said he is representing about 100 residents in the surrounding area who are against the incorporation of Golden.
“They are not for or against, necessarily, warehouses or commercial development. What they’re for is individual property rights,” Domoney said. “They want those property rights to be preserved just like they are today. They do not want to have another layer of government telling them what they can do and what they can’t do on their property and with their property.”
He said some feel the town is being formed for the sole purpose of keeping out the industrial development.
“They feel if Golden is formed, this may be a missed opportunity for Miami County as a whole to have a commercial tax base,” he said. “Commercial businesses contribute a tremendous percentage to the county budget.”
He said some also are worried about additional taxes being imposed after the city is incorporated. And he argued that the formation of a new city would set “a dangerous precedent.”
“There may be several other areas of our county that may want to form a city. Then we’ll just have cities all over the place, which is not in the best interest to Miami County,” he said. “It’s a dangerous precedent. It’s not good for the whole of Miami County.”
If approved, Golden would sit just south of the Johnson County border, with more than 770 residents.
With a population of 33,400 Miami County is a fraction the size of Johnson County, the most populated county in Kansas with more than 600,000 residents.
Incorporation presents logistical challenges
In a recent planning survey, residents of Miami County cited the rural atmosphere as the top reason people lived there — more important than the cost of living, jobs or the county’s proximity to Kansas City. Residents also identified preserving the area’s farming, wide-open spaces and rural lifestyle as the most important factor in weighing future development.
And that’s what many residents of what would become Golden say is driving their effort.
Still, forming a new city is a rare event in Kansas, where only five new towns have been incorporated since 1980, according to the Kansas League of Municipalities. It’s up to county commissions to approve the incorporation of rural land.
The last city to form was Highlands just outside of Hutchinson in 2017. In recent years, it’s been more common for small towns like Freeport and Frederick to seek to disband.
There are many logistical challenges to be addressed in the creation of a new city.
In a letter to county leaders, Allen Soetaert, manager of Johnson County Rural Water District 7, said state law does not prescribe what should happen when a new town forms within the boundaries of a rural water district. Though the petitioners said they planned to stick with their current District 7 service, he said they have had no conversation with the water district.
Soetaert said retaining current service would be the most feasible option, but he urged the commission to push for a utility service plan from the town’s creators.
Miami County Commissioner Rob Roberts said that the body will deliberate at some point following the hearing, but could not offer a definitive timeline for those public discussions or when a decision will be made.
He said commissioners will gather input from county officials, including the sheriff, public works director and county appraiser, as well as from state officials.
Roberts said they also will request a study from the Kansas Department of Commerce.
Residents hope to stand up for themselves
Before Wednesday’s meeting, commissioners listed out a litany of factors they would have to consider under Kansas law. Those include population density, the effect on adjacent areas and the town’s ability to provide basic services.
But commissioners said they also wanted to know more about Golden’s plans for municipal services.
“Are there alternatives to incorporation that would achieve the objective of petitioners to “preserve their large lot residential and agriculture-friendly way of life while accommodating appropriate new development?” the board wrote.
While she has no standing with Miami County’s governing body, Johnson County Commissioner Charlotte O’Hara applauded the effort to form the new town on Wednesday. She has frequently criticized the massive tax abatements Edgerton has granted to NorthPoint Development, the primary developer of the area.
With Golden incorporated, she said, residents would have the ability to stand up for themselves and negotiate with developers.
“Johnson County has been totally ineffective in protecting the residents there,” she said. “The conservation area of southwest Johnson County has been obliterated. This is not about job creation. This is not about building community. This is about the bottom line, period.”