After an hour-long Barton County Commission discussion Tuesday morning, one thing was clear about the condition of the South Homestead Township roads around Cheyenne Bottoms – the situation is muddy at best.
The issue came up during the commission’s study session when Rob Penner of The Nature Conservancy approached the county about a $13,300 grant he received through the North American Wetland Conservation Act via Ducks Unlimited. His hope was to see either the county or township utilize those funds to help improve roads in the area that have perennially fallen into disrepair.
“I’m not here to complain,” Penner said. “I’m just here to see how we can help get this done.”
At issue is a stretch of NE 20 Avenue along the east edge of the wetland preserve south of K-4 to NE 80 Road. It crosses land owned by the conservancy made up of wetland, so water routinely crosses it, making it nearly impassible.
However, the conversation grew to include greater problems with road maintenance by South Homestead, and a near scolding of the township officials present Tuesday by commission Chairwoman Alicia Straub. “I get calls from people in that township and I’m not even from that district.”
South Homestead falls in Kenny Schremmer’s First District. Straub, from Ellinwood, serves in the Fourth.
In the end, the commission directed County Engineer Barry McManaman and County Works Director Darren Williams to get a cost estimate of fixing the road. After that, the issue will be revisited, possibly by forming a multi-entity task force to study long-term solutions.
McManaman told commissioners he was approached by Penner about a cooperative effort on NW 20 Avenue. He also wanted a meeting including township officials.
“The road is not maintained really well,” McManaman said. He showed a series of photographs of muddy and water-covered low spots, five in all.
People have tried to drive through the patches, many getting stuck, he said. Even if they don’t get stuck, they tear the road up even more.
“Pretty much, the road needs to be elevated,” McManaman said. Raising the low spots and installing culverts would help keep it from flooding and allow water to flow.
There is traffic despite barricades erected by the township and the Road and Bridge Department.
For his part, Penner admitted that nobody lives in the area, it is flat and the surrounding area is made of marshes, and it has been an unusually damp past couple of seasons. “It is Cheyenne Bottoms. It is a wetland. It is wet.”
But, there are two businesses in the area as well as oil production, he said. It is also crucial to hunters and birdwatchers that clamor to the bottoms. “It is important to us in terms of environmental tourism,” he said.
It was noted during the meeting that the bottoms had at least 93,000 visitors last year, nearly half of which were not area residents. The economic impact could be as high as $4 million.
The conservancy pays taxes, but Penner said they are willing to do more since their property is impacted the most by the problems.
The conservancy, the county, the township and the Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism were involved in a joint project three years ago on another area road. That road is holding up, although it was mentioned that perhaps the township has not taken care of it as it should.
“We’re just kind of in that position again,” Penner said of the timing for a combination effort. The last project totaled $190,000, split among the partners.
However, Penner said his group doesn’t have the equipment to do the work. That is why he wants to partner with the township and/or the county which have graders, trained personnel and other machinery.
And, the conservancy’s $13,000 may not go as far as Penner thought it would. Although there is no cost estimate for the NW 20 Avenue work, the grant may only be a drop in the bucket.
South Homestead Township Clerk Brandon Yeakley said they have limited resources and have to prioritize what roads their part-time grader operator maintains. “Our first priority are the roads people live on.”
Besides, he said, they have a difficult time getting the operator to do the job. Finding reliable help is also challenging.
Still, “the roads have not been maintained as well as they should be,” Williams said. His crews have had to make repairs even on the first joint project.
Located smack in the center of Barton County, the 36-square-mile township encompasses the western tip of the bottoms as well as the adjacent wetland areas. It also covers the areas surrounding the southern two-thirds of Hoisington.
In all, there are 60 miles of gravel roads in South Homestead, 15 of which are in the area in question.
Of the 22 townships in Barton County, South Homestead has the lowest mill levy at 10.024 mills with a valuation of $5.9 million. Many townships with higher valuations have higher mill rates.
Perhaps, Straub said, the township should increase its taxes. “You should come up with a reasonable budget and fund maintenance.”
It’s not fair, she said, for the county to “subsidize” South Homestead. After the township arrives at a long-term plan to address the problems, it should come back before the commission.
“We do get a lot of calls,” Schremmer said. But, “it sure would be nice if everybody could work together.”
“I’ll be the first to admit I don’t know the answer,” Commissioner Jennifer Schartz said. She did note that much of the traffic on this road is not from South Homestead, so perhaps it deserves some assistance.
Penner also discussed work on the so-called “Crooked Road” that connects NW 100 and NE 90 roads. Technically a township road, it runs through a marshy pasture and serves no residents. The conservancy has funds to fix it up and install gates to keep out traffic when the road is muddy, and all parties were agreeable to this.
He also mentioned possibly closing 70th Road between 10 and 20 avenues since it doesn’t go anywhere and it is in bad shape. Although there were no objections, such a move would require approval by the County Commission.
The Nature Conservancy owns 7,300 acres which is administered as the Cheyenne Bottoms Preserve adjacent to the 41,000-acre Cheyenne Bottoms wetland area. The 20,000 acre center belongs to the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks and is administered as the Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area.
Cheyenne Bottoms in Barton County is the largest inland marsh in the United States.
In Barton and 34 other Kansas counties, gravel roads are the responsibility of the townships, while the county maintains the paved roads. The county does handle all bridge and culvert work, even on the dirt roads.
This arrangement went into effect in Barton County back in 1915.
Barton County Commission meeting at a glance:
Here is a quick look at what the Barton County Commission did Tuesday morning:
• Approved connecting the Barton County Landfill to the courthouse via a wireless connection.
The Landfill currently operates a server to run its network; this server will no longer be supported after January 2020. Wireless connection would eliminate the need to replace the server, eliminate some reoccurring costs and improve data backup solutions in general, said county Network Administrator Dereck Hollingshead.
The cost is not to exceed $11,500.
• Discussed improvements to roads surrounding Cheyenne Bottoms with South Homestead Township officials and Robert Penner of The Nature Conservancy.