Government & Politics

Leavenworth County approves scaled down rural foster care village

The Leavenworth County Commission on Wednesday approved a scaled-down version of a village of foster care homes proposed for a rural part of the county.

The creators of the nonprofit Joy Meadows sought a zoning change to create a development with up to 10 homes in the Linwood area. They envision building large homes that can house large sibling sets under one roof. The development would also provide support for foster families on site.

But the proposal faced strong opposition from neighbors, who worried about the development’s potential to interfere with traffic, roads, water and sewers.

At Wednesday’s county commission meeting, many opposing the project said their objections had nothing to do with foster care. Rather, they were concerned about the side effects of high density development in the area.

Some neighbors who spoke out against the proposal at a planning commission hearing last month said their comments had been misconstrued, causing them to be vilified on social media.

Commissioner Mike Stieben, who represents the area where the development is proposed, sought to focus attention on the zoning question at hand: whether to approve the nonprofit’s request for a Planned Unit Development.

“That’s what it’s about: It’s about zoning,” he said.

Later in the meeting, he said the county had to follow established state laws that govern zoning decisions.

As was the case last month, several speakers stood up to either voice support or opposition to the project. Many public comments urging approval of the proposal centered on the need to expand foster care services — one woman spoke about her positive experiences caring for foster kids and a man read from the Bible while urging the county to approve the measure.

The project is the brainchild of Sarah and Justin Oberndorfer, longtime foster care parents and advocates. Justin Oberndorfer is a pastor at Gracepoint Church in Shawnee and the nonprofit is guided by a statement of faith.

Foster care advocates and the Kansas Department for Children and Families have voiced support for the residential development, which comes during a time of upheaval for the Kansas foster care system.

A federal class action lawsuit filed last year alleged that Kansas foster care children are shuffled between homes so often that youth can be rendered “homeless while in state custody.” Attorneys amended the suit this month insisting even more vulnerable kids in the state are being harmed.

Before planning the residential development, the nonprofit group researched similar programs across the nation. Those include Peppers Ranch in Oklahoma and Drumm Farm in Independence.

Advocates say foster care children are normal kids and should be perceived as victims, not perpetrators. But some negative perceptions about foster care were apparent in the debate.

The county commission’s agenda packet included many letters in support of the project and against it. Most opponents wrote about development concerns, but one couple expressed concerns that their property values would decrease. They also worried about runaway foster children possibly hurting their family.

On Wednesday, many neighbors who spoke against the development centered their arguments on development concerns, not foster care. Many lauded the mission of Joy Meadows. But they doubled down on arguments that the selected site — a 23-acre property that currently houses one home — is not the best location for Joy Meadows.

Neighbors pointed out that the roads in the area, particularly the narrow, gravel-covered 166th Street, struggle with current traffic and are not designed to handle an onslaught of construction deliveries and traffic from the development. Some also noted the potential tax implications as the homes will be owned by the nonprofit and not subject to property tax collections. One neighbor said the required improvements on the property were so costly that it was not a good use of the nonprofit’s donated funds.

County staffers recommended approval of the zoning request, but the planning commission in September voted to not recommend the request.

The measure required approval of at least four of the five county commissioners on Wednesday because a protest petition was filed with the county.

Stieben moved to approve the Planned Unit Development with several conditions, including limiting the first phase of development to four total homes, including the one already there. A future phase can add three more, upon review from the county.

The county will require Joy Meadows to fund road improvements and maintain the playground area it envisions on the site to limit county liability.

Even with the limit of seven homes — rather than the 10 the group envisioned — county officials said the site plan could eventually change. Joy Meadows plans to build homes over time as funds are raised.

Commissioners voted 5-0 to approve the revised plan.

But even with the approval, Joy Meadows will need further county approval when platting the site and seeking building permits, said planning and zoning director Jeff Joseph.

“This is like the first step,” he said. “We have several more steps.”

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