Green Valley residents are facing a major decision for the future of their neighborhood. Incorporation, annexation, or continuation as a special district? Residents hope to preserve their quiet, affordable quality of life through it all.
It’s only 80 degrees, but on this summery Saturday morning, it feels more like 90 degrees as Dusty Thomas pulls weeds from the front yard rock bed with his two sons. Despite being sheltered from the sun by a green, pop-up tent, the children are less than enthusiastic about the work. “This is my mother-in-law’s home,” Dusty motions back toward the house, a tidy, new duplex with tasteful landscaping in Elbo Creek, one of the many newer developments off Green Valley Road. “I actually live a couple minutes away in Wildcat Woods. We bought the house about seven years ago.” Thomas explains the decision to move to the Green Valley area from Kansas City with his young family. “The rat race in Kansas City was so crazy. It takes 45 minutes to get anywhere. Everyone recognizes Manhattan as a great place to raise a family. There’s a great business community here.”
Thomas adjusts his fisherman’s hat to block the sun. “Once we started looking for a house, we found the west side of town was more expensive for less value. We wanted to be in the Manhattan school district, but if we went too far west in Manhattan, we were in the Riley County school district.” The desire for an affordable home within the 200,000s that was also within the Manhattan school district proved a challenge within city limits, which led the couple to the developments in Green Valley. And the area is only growing. “We bought our house for 250 seven years ago, but they are adding dozens of new homes in our neighborhood, some of which are going for 320.” He reached down and yanked a sprawling weed up by the roots, tossing it into a bucket. “We have two new neighbors who just moved in across the street from us from the west side of Manhattan. This area is being recognized as a great place to live.”
Thomas and his family represent a growing group of young professionals coming to Manhattan to raise families, looking for the intersection of a slower pace of life, with quality, affordable housing in a good school district. The Manhattan Urban Area Comprehensive Plan (MUACP), approved in 2015 by the City of Manhattan, as well as Riley and Pottawatomie counties, envisioned Green Valley as an area for residential growth for Manhattan. One of the key objectives of the MUACP Growth Plan states, “The Manhattan Urban Area will have a compact development pattern that encourages growth to locate within the Urban Service Area Boundary and Blue Township Urban Growth Area…”
The Green Valley area zoned as residential is in south Blue Township and north of Highway 24. After an extension of services agreements with Pottawatomie County allowing water and sewer access to the Green Valley area, developments grew from only 500 homes in 2006 to 1,500 by 2018, with a current total population of over 4,000. “It’s a very unique situation, unlike any other in the state,” says Stephan Metzger, assistant planner for Pottawatomie County. “Approximately 4,000 people are on city sewer and water in an unincorporated part of the county.” He adds, emphasizing the anomaly of the situation. “It’s basically the city of Wamego outside of a city of any kind. Most people are very surprised to find out just how many people live there.”
Manhattan City Manager Ron Fehr explains the history of the region’s growth. “In 2006, Manhattan made an agreement with Pottawatomie County to bring their sewer to our plant in exchange for a fee. This allowed the residential areas to take off. Without the availability of sewer treatment, the developments would not have been able to grow, and we made that decision knowing that area would be able to expand,” Fehr says, pointing to a large map of the Manhattan area along the wall of a city hall conference room. “Water became an issue about five or six years later. The Pottawatomie County Rural Water District is not designed to handle commercial or urban residential density of development. So we invested in a major water line and ran a 15-inch water line out to a pump station. The Rural Water District provides Green Valley residents with water purchased from Manhattan for a 125% fee.”
In addition to the appeal of finding an affordable, move-in-ready home in a good school district, the lower property taxes of unincorporated Pottawatomie County are a major draw for families like Tony and Shanae Hentzen, who recently relocated from Kansas City to Manhattan. Like Thomas, they said they wanted the quality of life Manhattan offers, along with a slower pace. They originally rented in Northview before beginning their home search and landed in Green Valley one year ago because of home values and lower taxes. “You can spend the same amount in Manhattan, but you can only get an older home. Out here the property taxes and specials are lower,” says Tony Hentzen from his Elbo Creek driveway. His wife, Shanae, nods emphatically. “I love it out here. We are far enough from the city but five minutes from everything we need.” Shanae, who works in Junction City, adds, “Since moving from Northview, the commute is about the same.”
Shanae points to homes along their street, confirming that many other families like them have made similar decisions to make Green Valley home. “There are lots of young families with kids around here.” She laughs, “The next-door neighbor kid and our daughter are friends, and he’s been over twice today asking to play. We also have a buy-nothing Facebook group just for Blue Township. It makes it feel like a small community.”
Based on the vision of the Manhattan Urban Area Comprehensive Plan, the residential developments in Green Valley are a strategic move, meeting important housing needs for the region. Last year, Manhattan ranked #2 out of 100 cities for Livability, based on scores rating housing costs and availability, employment and the local economy, health care and education options. Yet the conundrum for Manhattan is that the neighborhoods outside the city limits in Green Valley appear most appealing in offering local residents and newcomers the “quality of life” dream Manhattan sells: quality, affordable housing near good schools, a more restful pace than a big city, and a five minute drive from anywhere.
Yet with all its benefits for Green Valley residents, the area’s growth presents unique challenges for a currently unincorporated region of Pottawatomie County. As the neighborhoods expand and more people choose Green Valley as their home, needs of expansion of services, such as water or a local fire department, lead to questions of governance and identity. As residents of the county, families who move to Green Valley give up aspects of city life many take for granted, such as the sense of identifying with a particular community.
With 50% of Green Valley residents working in Manhattan, the places people work, play and spend their money affects their sense of identity in addition to their place of residence. Although Green Valley residents have a Manhattan address and send their children to USD 383 schools, Metzger articulates the challenge of how Green Valley residents identify themselves. “We have a steering committee [for planning], and I asked them, ‘When you introduce yourself, where do you say you live?’ The answer I got back was, ‘We don’t know. We are in the middle.’ Some said they lived in Manhattan while others say, ‘I live in Blue Township.’ I get questions every week from people who say, “I live in Manhattan, but I live in Pottawatomie County.”
He notes that although the area is part of Blue Township, the choice to name and outline Green Valley was intentional, designed to give residents a sense of place. “We call this the ‘Green Valley Plan’ to help create some sense of identity for those folks who live out there. The steering committee felt it would be good to help them have an identity. Sixty percent of our survey respondents have lived in Green Valley for less than five years.” He adds that the original Timber Creek neighborhoods do have a sense of place, however, that’s because it’s the only neighborhood that’s been in the area from the 1970s. “People who lived in Timber Creek for 30 years have a very different answer. They identify with their neighborhood because they were the only neighborhood out there for 30 years. That sense of identity extends out there among other neighborhoods. But some of the other neighborhoods have a lesser connection.”
Yet perhaps the greatest challenge to the combined realization of the MUACP vision and the quality of life Green Valley residents seek is the question of governance for the rapidly expanding area. In February, Pottawatomie County held a community meeting for residents to share options for the way forward, which included incorporation as their own town, annexation by the City of Manhattan, or maintaining as a special district. Metzger says the county cannot take any action to change governance structures of the region but is trying to inform residents of what their options are. “The county has tried to remain neutral because the county can’t initiate incorporation, the township doing more, or annexation [by Manhattan]. So our role has been to wait and see.” He adds, “We tried to get the ball rolling discussing options, but now the county needs to take a step back and let citizens take the lead. If the citizens wanted to incorporate, the county approves or denies that incorporation, so it’s important that the county not get involved. We are here to provide information if people ask for it, then let them make the best decision for their neighborhood and themselves.
However, if Thomas or the Hentzen’s are indicators of the common sentiment of Green Valley, residents like things just as they are. “I would love to live in Manhattan, but I would have to see the taxes,” Thomas says. “Pottawatomie County gives you so much more freedom. You don’t have as many resources, but most of us aren’t screaming for inclusion [in the city], aside from a few active people who would benefit from one decision or another.” Of the potential governance choices, Tony Hentzen echoes the sentiment simply. “I would like to do the cheapest option.”
As the area grows, however, the choice to ‘do nothing and remain the same’ is less and less viable as Manhattan is unlikely to benefit from increasing infrastructure access to neighborhoods outside of their tax base. Fehr adds the decision to annex Green Valley is not a foregone conclusion of the City of Manhattan anyway, as it may not be in the best interest of the city. In May, the Manhattan City Commission approved a study that will outline in detail the true costs and benefits of expansion of all city services to the Green Valley area. The results will be available in November. Fehr says, “From there, we will proceed to phase two, depending if the City Commission wants to move forward with further analysis or create a statutory services plan.”
The other significant option requiring action from Green Valley residents would be the choice to become their own city via incorporation. Fehr outlines this process. “Incorporation is initiated by a group of citizens who can petition the county to allow for incorporation. There would be provisions regarding the close proximity of Green Valley to Manhattan that would require a unanimous decision by the county commission to approve that request.”
Fehr adds, “It’s complicated. It has a lot of implications. Those annexation laws have been amended a lot of times.” Metzger laughs, reiterating Fehr’s experience in communicating governance options. “I try to never underestimate how complex this is.”
For Green Valley residents like Thomas, however, the hope is to keep decisions as simple as possible, maintaining the quality of life that drew them to Green Valley in the first place. He says that although he has not gotten involved in annexation or incorporation talks, any decision that significantly alters the lower cost of living, access to good schools, and the ability to make his housing dollar stretch, would force him to advocate for himself and his neighbors. “Those of us out here just don’t want to have our cost of living impacted for no additional value.”
Sarah Siders is a freelance writer, author and coach who specializes in leadership and healthy relationships.