Sprawl is the plan

Here, in a subdivision called Harbor Lake, the houses are laid out so most back yards don’t look straight out at a neighbor. Instead, the yards merge into prairies and ponds and, for some, the waterfowl refuge at Smithville Lake.

This is classic suburban sprawl — and yet it helps explain why spacious Smithville ranks as the third-best suburb in The Kansas City Star’s analysis of suburban quality of life.

The Northland town of 6,600 is essentially a place about space. As Mayor Chuck Hitchborn puts it: “We’ve retained a lot of elbow room.”

Smithville is best known for its neighboring lake, a recreational mecca with marinas, beaches and parks. In The Star’s comparison of local suburbs in nearly two dozen statistical measures, Smithville topped all other suburbs in park acreage per capita in and around the city. And its proximity to the lake helped it finish near the top in housing appreciation.

Yet, Smithville is not a typical lake community. There are no lakefront homes. Much of the land around the lake is controlled by the U.S. government, and development is not allowed on it.

So the lake’s creation in the late 1970s didn’t set off a land rush. That has only come in the past decade as the Northland’s exploding sprawl extended up U.S. 169 into Smithville, 20 miles from downtown Kansas City.

Now, Smithville leaders see sprawl as their city’s emerging niche in the metropolitan area.

Sprawl is often viewed as a dirty word by urban planners. It’s come to mean uncontrolled, unconnected, spread-out development. Subdivisions are carved out in far-flung fields, set apart from other neighborhoods, schools and parks like little islands in a vast ocean.

Yes, the lots are large. The population per square mile is low. The houses are new.

And in places like Harbor Lake, the residents love it.

Wide open and new

It’s a Saturday evening, and members of the Rick family are enjoying their newest form of bliss — their new home.

The Ricks just finished building their house last year. So everything about it is still fresh and undamaged. No cracks in the walls. No leaks in the basement. No trail of dirt on the carpeting. None of those things, but more of other things, like bigger bathrooms and bigger closets.

As Ken Rick points out: “What’s not to like? It’s not somebody else’s old carpeting or old paint. You can get what you want.”

This newness is something more Americans wish they had. In a consumer survey done last year for the National Association of Home Builders, home buyers were asked what kind of home they favored. While existing homes dominate the for-sale listings, buyers preferred a brand-new or custom-built home over an existing one by a 3-to-1 margin.

The marketplace bears this out — new homes often are bought while still under construction.

Not every suburb can fill this desire, however. Some closer-in ’burbs, like Raytown or Fairway or Merriam, are landlocked with limited space to build new housing.

In The Star’s comparison of local suburbs, Smithville emerged as one of the more desirable destinations for buyers seeking new homes.

It placed among the top third in total single-family housing permits and in its balance of low-, middle- and upper-end housing prices. Plus, because the city and Clay County governments don’t levy a property tax, Smithville had the second-lowest tax burden on homeowners.

Still, when the Ricks started looking for their home, Smithville was foreign to them.

They wanted to be closer to wife Kelley’s family in Atchison, Kan. The couple checked out Liberty, Kearney and Platte County but couldn’t find something they liked. So they built the four-bedroom, three-garage, reverse story-and-a-half for about $230,000 in Smithville’s Harbor Lake.

The reason? The kind of outdoor bliss they’re enjoying on this Saturday evening.

The clouds have cleared, the smoker on the patio is smoking pork steaks and, in the distance, ducks are quacking. The Ricks sit on their backyard patio. There are trade-offs for choosing Smithville.

They haven’t lived there long enough to know many neighbors. Ken’s commute to work near downtown is about 40 minutes. And there’s not much to do in town on a Saturday night — it has no movie theaters and most of the restaurants are of the fast-food variety.

So the Ricks enjoy barbecuing and watching their 9-year-old son exploring.

The boy treks across the lawn and past the 2-foot-tall evergreen saplings, leaving the family’s property.

He continues through a swath of knee-high prairie grass and reaches the subdivision’s 3½-acre pond, about 100 feet from the patio. He trolls the pond’s edge, bends down and scoops up a frog in his hands.

This common-ground space, open to everyone in the subdivision, is an extension of the Ricks’ back yard. The nearest neighbor in their line of sight is across the pond.

“We were both drawn to the fact that you weren’t backing up to someone else’s back door and deck,” Ken Rick says. “It’s hard to find a subdivision like this.”

Now it’s becoming Smithville’s preferred development pattern.

That’s because it fits with the way Smithville’s always been.

A radical departure

Drive through Smithville, and it’s easy to see it’s dominated by openness.

Roads meander through Smithville Lake’s thousands of acres of government preserves. On the commercial strip along U.S. 169, businesses such as Pizza Huts and tractor dealers sit next to grassy lots. In the center of town, there’s a city park where kids play ball. And on the outskirts of town, new subdivisions are separated by bean farms and countryside.

It’s so open that this past summer the city government authorized archery hunting to control the deer population roaming around town.

“It still has a rural feel to it,” city administrator Mike Schrage says.

So in recent years, when a few developers began showing up with subdivision proposals containing lots of open space, city leaders welcomed them.

One of the first was Harbor Lake, with 263 homes on 170 acres and where the developer, Clay County Commissioner Craig Porter, has personally planted prairie blue stem and Indian grass seeds taken off his father’s farm near Trenton, Mo. One of the city’s newest subdivisions is Greyhawke at the Lake, where half of the 250 acres is reserved for nature.

Now the city government is embracing and encouraging this development pattern.

The city’s land-use map and new comprehensive development plan identify conservation areas, such as streams, hillsides and even tree groves, where building is limited. If subdivisions are planned in such sections, a quarter of the land must be conserved for open space, up from 10 percent in the past.

Such subdivisions represent a radical departure from suburbia’s more traditional compact subdivisions, where all the developable land is divided into roads and house lots.

“They’re doing something that’s really unique in the Kansas City area,” says Porter.

This departure appeals to city leaders because it sustains some of the landscape’s natural beauty. Plus, a few academic studies have shown that homes in such roomy, open subdivisions appreciated in value more than those in conventional subdivisions nearby.

Across metro Kansas City, fellow far-flung exurbs like Spring Hill in Johnson County are growing with developments that mix single-family homes with town houses, duplexes, even maintenance-free senior housing. Smithville, however, is going in the opposite direction in density.

“I don’t want growth to eat us up,” Mayor Hitchborn says. “I want residents to feel like they have room.

“Out here, you don’t want to be hanging outside your window and feel like you can shake hands with your neighbors.”