ETHAN — The gears about the future of Ethan, and Davison County as a whole, began turning Wednesday.

A handful of community residents gathered at the Ethan Community Center with officials from the county's Planning and Zoning Department and District III Planning and Development to hold the first public meeting for the county's comprehensive planning process. That plan is being updated for the first time in 20 years, and Davison County Planning and Zoning Administrator Jeff Bathke said the goal is for it to guide the next 20 years, as well.

“All three municipalities and the county, in general, we want to figure out where the municipalities want to go, where the county wants to go with planning over the next 20 years with housing, industry, small business, and then figure out a way to pay for that,” Bathke said.

District III Community Development Specialist Eric Ambroson led the discussion, which covered population and demographic trends in the county and looking at the Ethan area and identifying priorities for potential future housing and commercial development. Comprehensive plans are legally required to be in place by state law to help guide zoning regulations

“This is really a guide for community growth,” Ambroson said of the plan. “It’s a visioning statement, but it’s the legal basis for all of the zoning in the county.”

District III Community Development Specialist Eric Ambroson speaks during a public meeting regarding the Davison County comprehensive plan Wednesday at the Ethan Community Center. (Marcus Traxler / Republic)
District III Community Development Specialist Eric Ambroson speaks during a public meeting regarding the Davison County comprehensive plan Wednesday at the Ethan Community Center. (Marcus Traxler / Republic)

Ambroson shared a litany of statistics about Davison County’s trends and demographics, showing that more residents have at least a high school diploma than in past years and that housing projection scenarios indicate nearly 2,000 new units will be needed in the county over the next 20 years, with more than 1,100 of those coming through single-family dwellings.

Davison County had 19,504 residents as of 2010. Ambroson pointed out that the county's population has grown by one-third of a percentage point each decade. If that rate continues, that projects to put Davison County's total population over 20,000 next year in 2020, and increasing by about 330 residents every five years, culminating with about 21,400 residents in 2040.

Ambroson also shared data regarding the employment trends in the area. In 2017, employers reported strong climbs in the construction and manufacturing industries, while educational jobs increased slightly. Industries to experience decreases were in the hospitality industry, retail and healthcare, which mirror some national trends. Statistical projections indicate many of those same trends are expected to continue.

For Ethan’s residents, they gathered around large maps of the community and identified what they would like to see prioritized. The community doesn’t have a convenience store or a gas station, so residents said it would be beneficial to see that return, and added that the community could use another daycare business.

They also identified some areas on the edge of the city limits that would be good for potential residential development, along with lots in the community that currently have decrepit homes on them that could be torn down and have new homes built there. About 26.5 percent of the county’s houses were built before 1940, data showed.

Bathke said a key determination is to figure out what communities really want for future development.

“You have to consider how much housing you’re willing to add, and all of the infrastructure that goes with it,” Bathke said. “Do you want the expansion of new business? Not every town does.”

Bathke noted that the meetings have had fortuitous timing with the recent flooding, because it emphasizes which properties would be good for constructing homes or businesses.

“You might have an area that looks like it’s a good place to build homes and then it had 6 feet of water on it the day after the flooding,” he said.

Ambroson also presented planning concepts, which showed rural developments that are like neighborhoods, along with ag industry clusters that might have businesses that work well together. He also showed ideas for environmental-minded subdivisions and country neighborhoods that limited driveways to busy rural roads with private lanes and driveways.

“We like having clusters,” said Bathke, speaking of rural neighborhoods and homes.

From a commuting standpoint, Davison County is a net importer of employees. About 7,500 people live and work in the county, while 4,737 live outside the county’s boundaries and work in Davison County. A total of 3,290 people live in Davison County but work elsewhere. An increased percentage of residents are taking advantage of two-year associate’s degrees or at least completing high school than past generations, Ambroson pointed out, as well.

The conversation didn’t elaborate on controversial issues such as commercial animal feeding operations and wind energy projects, but Ambroson said they are key issues that county residents should voice their thoughts about to guide future decisions.

There will be more chances for the public to be involved with the process. A similar public meeting will be held in Mount Vernon at 6 p.m. on Oct. 23. Another is planned at the Davison County Fairgrounds in coming weeks. There will also be public hearings with the Davison County Commission when it comes time for the county to adopt the plan.

County leaders are also asking that residents fill out a short online survey about advantages and disadvantages in the county, developmental needs and major issues and priorities for Davison County in coming years. That survey is expected to be live on the county’s website — davisoncounty.org — in the coming days.

“It’s fairly simple,” Bathke said of the survey. “It’s an opportunity for people in the community to voice their concerns. What we don’t like is when the only people who show up at meetings are the people that are already on town boards and committees. We want to hear from the people who aren’t usually involved in those planning processes to see what they want out of the county in the future.”