Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Some Contrarian Thoughts on SM Park Deer Situation

Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam
Where the deer and the antelope play
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word
And the skies are not cloudy all day

Apparently, those famous lyrics from the Kansas State Song, "Home on the Range", no longer apply to Johnson County. Here, the deer will no longer play but instead be shot, the only thing roaming will be dozens of bulldozers building the next lifestyle center, and the only thing seldom heard will be the uninterrupted sounds of nature.

What brings us to this dripping sarcasm? The recent decision by the Johnson County Parks Board to have a "harvest" of deer in Shawnee Mission Park. The decision is to spend tens of thousands of dollars on training park police officers to sharpshoot deer. This isn't a small deal either -- they aim to reduce the amount of deer from 200 per square mile to 50 per square mile. So, you're talking about reducing the population by 3/4 in a public park.

There are many impassioned views on this subject, including those who are absolutely opposed to the hunt and those who are in favor of it. Neither side has the full array of facts on their side, in our view, but we at Kaw & Border do not believe the decision by the Board was a wise one for a host of reasons, including a failure to acknowledge how the county got to this situation in the first place, as well as the precedents set by allowing a hunt in a public suburban park.

First of all, we disagree that this is the wisest decision fiscally. Assuming for a second that there is indeed a huge deer problem at the park, and that hunting them down is the only option, is spending a bunch of money to train sharpshooters the best option, when the park could have charged trained/licensed hunters say, $100 a person, and actually made money? It seems that the parks board tried to split the baby between those who wanted a hunt and were crying the loudest for it and those who were concerned about safety, and now have a "solution" that really doesn't make much sense.

Second of all, is this really that big of problem to require such a drastic solution as a hunt in a public suburban park, previously thought to be free from hunting -- a "solution" which has - -and will continue to -- raise the emotions of thousands of Johnson Countians who are opposed to it because of the very real and understandable principle that hunting should not occur in a suburban park meant for recreation? Is there truly a public outcry for this, or are we making a decision based on a few loud complaints who are demanding a hunt? Is someone who chose to buy a home next to a large public park -- which has always had deer and will still have deer even after this hunt -- seriously credible when they are complaining about deer in their backyard? We've heard of NIMBYs, but that is taking it to the extreme.

Related to that point, did the county take a county-wide scentific poll to see what the public's overall view of the situation is? Making a decision based on a few dozen people showing up at a parks board hearing and a few passionate e-mails and calls seems to be caving into a mob mentality, no matter which side the mob comes from. This county is approaching 600,000 residents. A scentific survey of its residents -- all of whom pay for the park through tax dollars -- may have been warranted. Even if one assumes the problem is as dire as some make it out to be -- perhaps some scentific surveys could have beeon done as to the solution. Detailed questions could have been asked about whether the public feels there is a problem, how severe it is, and if there is, the proper method of dealing with it -- including the options of a sharpshooter hunt as has been enacted, a paid hunt through licensed hunters, or a relocation program. The questions would lay out the costs of each, and perhaps even inquire about the public's willingness to pay for a relocation program. They could even out lay out questions about how we got here in the first place -- such as "is the county developing too fast?" It would be interesting to know the results, and also important given the sensitivity of this issue, the long path it took to even get to this situation, and the long term solution it will take to ensure it won't happen again. Given that it is a LARGE PUBLIC PARK, which many people understandably value, it seems there would never be a better time for a public poll than now.

Third of all, on that very point, again assuming that this problem is as severe as they say it is, if the county was going to spend money, perhaps it should have explored a more humane solution than a hunt. Perhaps a relocation program, spread out over several years, to spread out the cost? This is a problem that took several years if not decades in occuring, perhaps it should take more than a couple years to solve it. Heck, we've now spent well over a year talking about the problem, perhaps the solution doesn't need to occur overnight either. If safety on Renner Road near 79th is an issue, why not simply reduce the speed to 30 mph for a while? That section of Renner is just to the north of where Lenexa has installed five roundabouts anyway, so the speed has been reduced already. Also, it's not as if deer are dying by the dozens here -- or as if there are massive public protests. Now, some will say -- the taxpayers shouldn't be paying for this and a relocation program is quite expensive. We'd like to see the reasons why -- but we see do the point about taxpayer dollars, being a blog that stands up for fiscal responsibility. Point is, we can take a step back and look at a better solution that addresses the problem while also not resorting to the drastic step of a hunt.

However, here is a contrarian thought: This is a public park with a problem brought on by publicly elected councils making poor decisions in terms of county development. So, whether we like it or not, if we believe in the notion of public parks as a county, then we have to be prepared to deal with any problem that arise from poor planning and that include spending money.

However, with more than half a million residents in this county, some of them quite wealthy, perhaps some of costs associated with a relocation program could have offset through the creation of a non profit entity that would raise money to relocate the deer. There are surely thousands of people opposed to the hunt and they could help fund the relocation program. Even those not absolutely opposed to the hunt might favor a relocation program, but the opposition seems to be cost-related. If these funds could have been raised in large part through private financing, then why not?

Fourth, and this gets to our main point -- the one thing we are not hearing in ANY of these discussions over the deer problem is perhaps the most important thing for county officials to know -- and that is a history lesson. How did we get here in the first place? Did the county overdevelop?

Let's assume for a moment the problem is as severe as they say it is -- that the number of deer in the park is unacceptable. Okay, fine. Let's deal with some other facts as well.

First is that this problem did not occur overnight. This is a problem brought on by years of poor planning and the lack of attention by the parks board, county officials, city officials, and developers who only care about making a buck.

Shawnee Mission Park has been there for decades, dating back to 1964 when it was developed. In 1964, Johnson County was a much smaller place. Yet, as the county has grown in size, and the population has creeped westward and southward, there has been amazingly little discussion about one, whether the park is sufficient to deal with a county whose population could eventually reached 750,000. Also, there was a stunning lack of discussion -- at least publicly -- about any potential problems that would stem from wildlife -- mainly deer -- essentially being forced to live in the park only, therefore gradually, over time, squeezing a large herd of deer -- previously spread out over several square miles -- into the one undeveloped area of land -- the park.

Rather than using any notion of a long term vision of overall county planning, which includes adequate park land to deal with the desires and needs of a citizenry, as well as the animals in the park, city and county officials instead did nothing, and have been in the pocket of developers who have gradually, over time, tried to develop every open green space available, whether the demand was there or not.

The most shining example of this -- with a direct impact on the deer problem -- is the "Blight in Lenexa" that this blog addressed back in April. About 20 years ago, long before this deer situation was on anyone's radar, the city of Lenexa decided they wanted to make Renner Road the next College Boulevard. So, they set aside enough land for 4.5 million acres of development for a city that at the time, only had about 35,000 people -- and still only has 43,000. The result, over time, through bulldozing and such, was the reduction of prime deer habitat. It used to be that a drive down Renner Road at the appropriate times would yield a few deer sightings between 87th and 95th streets, particularly along the wooded areas around 91st and Renner.

Now, rather than a few more acres of deer habitat, at 91st and Renner sits a half-built fitness center, now up for sale because it ran out of money, which stands as a fortress to failure -- failure to recognize that the demand isn't and may never be there for the vast development Lenexa envisions -- and a failure to any lack of REAL planning -- and no, not just planning that involved pretty designs from developers of massive retail complexes, but planning which took into account the needs of a growing population, the squeezing of deer habitat, and the possible problems that could arise from that.

Further point on the long term planning. These same surveys that show that there are 200 deer per square mile in and around the park -- could have likely shown a similar problem 5, 10, 15 years ago. It may not have been as severe, but the trend surely would have been there. Why not alert us to the problem then? It doesn't take a genius to realize this problem would get worse over time.

If the problem had been made known to the public, say, 10 years ago -- the county could have instituted a long term solution -- such as the establishment of a fund to help pay for a relocation program when the time came. As we stated earlier in this post, one benefit of being in a large, wealthy county is that there is a lot of money available for extra-curricular causes. One only need look at the many mega churches, expensive high end shopping centers, and neighborhoods of half million dollar homes to see that there is money available.

But, because the county didn't do that -- or didn't alert the public to it -- the public stayed ignorant. So now, several years later, in 2009, rather than having a ready-made long-term solution to a long term problem, our unelected parks board has come up with a poorly-planned, short term band-aid which doesn't address how we got here, and now establishes a precedent that hunting is okay in a public suburban park like Shawnee Mission Park.

Let's be clear here -- we are not opposed to hunting here at Kaw & Border. However, there is a big difference between a private landowner allowing hunting on his property and Johnson County, a large suburb, allowing hunting in a public recreational park mainly known for swimming, picnics, dog parks, and concerts. Let's keep in mind -- this will involve, for safety issues, the CLOSING of a public park for HUNTING. That may sound too "soft and fuzzy" type "Bambi talk" for some readers of this blog, but we don't live in rural Kansas or rural Missouri -- we live in a suburb and as such, the standards are and should be different.

To sum up, here are our thoughts:

1. We acknowledge there is a problem with the deer population at Shawnee Mission Park. We, however, do not feel that there is necessairly a need to reduce the herd as severely as they say.

2. Make no mistake, resorting to hunting in a public, suburban park is a DRASTIC step. Even if one is for a hunt of some kind, one should also acknowledge that this is a rather unusual step for a big suburb to take -- and perhaps look at the precedent it sets. Is this a one time thing or something we're going to do every 5 years?

3. Because it is so drastic, we should spend some time looking at how we got here in the first place -- overdevelopment, whether there is enough park land to match the current and future population of the county, failure to address this deer situation which began several years ago -- and perhaps learn from some of these lessons and adjust for the future.

4. We do not believe, as a matter of principle, that hunting should be allowed in a public suburban park. As we said earlier, this may raise the ire of those who think this stance is too bleeding heart, but we feel that the realities of a suburban community are different than those of a rural one. We are not opposed to hunting -- but we are in this particular instance.

5. We believe a detailed public survey would have been warranted -- which would have asked questions not only about the current situation, but everything surrounding it -- including whether Johnson County is overdeveloping and whether the park planning is sufficient, and even seeing how much sentiment there would be for a relocation program largely funded privately through donations.

6. We believe that a well-planned long term relocation program would have been the answer. Ideally, fundraising for this should have began several years ago (when the problem started to occur) to offset the cost, which we acknowledge is significant. However, we would have been okay with some public dollars being spent to address the critical parts of the herd now -- perhaps reducing it by 50 per square mile rather than 150 -- and then at the same time, establish a long term fundraising organization for a long-term relocation program to thin down the herd more.

7. We believe that the citizens of this county should pay more attention to the local boards who are in the pockets of developers who have no goal other than to build stuff. Building stuff is not a plan. "Lifestyle" centers do not make a community. A comprehensive plan does, something the public has signficant input in. More citizen participation in local elections and in local politics would help prevent these problems from happening.

In closing, we'll say this. The authors of this blog and family have been residents of Johnson County since the 1970's, so we take great interest in this issue, even though it's not as sexy as state and national politics. During these past 30 years, we have seen this county grow from the relatively small suburb with tons of room to the massive economic and development engine that it is, increasingly swallowed up by a shopping center here, a fancy new "smart corridor" there. Make no mistake, this is not all bad -- and we are, in general, proud of the progress and growth of Johnson County.

At the same time, however, we are increasingly concerned about the lack of leadership and planning. There is something to the notion of excessive suburban sprawl, and while we are not opposed to growth, we also believe that effective, balanced planning that takes into account all factors involved in a growing suburb is warranted, rather than the build-first, deal-with-consequences-later mentality our leaders seem to be employing.

This mentality is revealing itself in very public ways - we first saw the consequences of this with the God-awful City Center planning that has resulted in Lenexa becoming the joke of the metro area with it's half built blighted bulidings and ridiculous roundabouts. Now we have this problem at Shawnee Mission Park with deer, a problem that resulted from a stunning lack of attention over the past two decades, and had resulted in a drastic action that offends many while not addressing the real problems that caused it.

Unless attitudes are adjusted and current local leaders replaced, this type of problem will be the long term reality of our county.