ORIGINALLY WRITTEN ALEEN RATZLAFF
Getting familiar with a new locality takes some time.
“I’ve only been lost once because I was supposed to go to Canada and I thought I was going to Canton,” said Bobbi Strait, Marion County’s new director of planning, zoning and environmental health.
Strait, who began her job about two weeks ago, comes to Marion County from Seward County, where she worked in a similar position as a zoning and building inspector.
Strait embraces the challenges of being an educator and promoter for public health and safety for Marion County residents.
“What motivates and energies me is knowing (residents) have a healthy water supply, knowing they have a sewage system that isn’t going cost them a lot of money from failure or make them sick or damage their property,” she said.
Oversight of the county’s land-use regulations involves reviewing zoning applications and construction permits, enforcing zoning regulations adopted by the Marion County Commission and providing research and recommendations for the county’s comprehensive plan.
“The comprehensive plan involves the development needs and locations of what the county expects to need in the future,” Strait said.
Zoning regulations are put in place to protect agricultural land and farmers so they can conduct their day-to-day business without having large housing developments “popping up right in the middle of their farm ground,” she said.
Zoning issues include noise, traffic of heavy machinery and size of land purchased for housing developments in rural areas of Marion County.
“The purpose of zoning is to protect agricultural use,” she said. “Normally, that’s the primary objective in a rural community.”
Zoning codes also impact residential and commercial uses in rural areas.
“It allows you to focus on one specific area so that current industrial uses meet separation distances from a single-family neighborhood,” Strait said.
While similar in some ways, her new job also differs from her former one in Seward County.
“The difference here between sanitation is that in Seward County it’s so dry that nobody uses lagoons because you can’t keep enough water and we don’t have any clay in Seward County,” Strait said.
“You have restricted soils here where you need to put in a lagoon because a traditional septic tank and lateral field won’t function.”
Strait held her Seward County position for five years. Prior to taking that, she worked for two years as secretary for planning and zoning, emergency management and rural fire.
But within a six-month period, employee turnover left the department unmanned.
“I was supposed to fill in to cover the things that needed to be done until they found somebody to do it. It just kind of stuck.”
Her interest in zoning and public health grew as she took on more responsibilities.
“I liked being out in the field,” she said. “I really enjoyed the people contact. The more I learned about it, the less I knew and the more I knew I didn’t know.
Her on-the-job training kept her busy.
“I was flying by the seat of my pants for the first year and a half, and I was consistently going to training trying to figure out what I was doing in that job,” Strait said.
Participating in training programs and conferences, and meeting people in similar positions from other jurisdictions helped develop breadth and depth of knowledge and gave Strait valuable resources.
“I did a lot networking and training classes the first year and a half until I finally started to get a grasp everything that I was doing,” she said. “I could call and ask questions if I didn’t understand something.”
Strait earned her building inspector certification in six months.
“That was exciting-it was a milestone for me,” she said.
Another difference between Marion and Seward counties is terminology about codes and permits in the zoning department.
Marion County does not have building codes, so some terms are used interchangeably.
“Building permit and zoning permit are the same thing here,” she said.
At this point, she said, builders in rural areas do not have building structures inspected.
Strait welcomes the challenge of solving problems that are an integral part of her job.
“If I don’t have that information right off the top of my head, I have contact with people at KDHE (Kansas Department of Health and Environment) and other sanitarians that I can call and say, ‘Hey, this is what I’m running in to, these are the soil characteristics, this is the failure issue.”
She said she encountered such an issue in Seward County about a year ago. A septic system failed prematurely.
During her investigation, she found that an outlet along the septic tank was not connected and consequently, the property owner now had a major expense. The problem could have been avoided if instillation had been done properly.
“That’s what I find exciting about (the job)-being able to prevent things like that from happening,” she said.
Education, Strait said, is an vital part of her job-learning as well as teaching others.
“I would rather work with a compliance attitude rather than an enforcement attitude,” she said.
“I tend work with the public. If there’s something they want a variance for that I just don’t think is a good idea, I can normally explain why it’s a bad idea.
“If they don’t understand, I draw a lot of pictures to help them fully understand why the rules can’t be modified in certain cases.
“They feel a whole lot better about following the rules if they understand the rules.”
Strait, a mother of five and grandmother of four, has moved to the city of Marion. Her youngest child, a 13-year-old son, will attend school in Marion.
She said she’s pleased with the size and quality of the Marion school district.
For now, an immediate challenge for Strait is scheduling; she’s got a stack of inspections, soil profiles and applications for permits to go through.
“I can barely get out of the office for the phone ringing and people coming in. And once I get out, I’ve got so much to do that I can’t get back to the office,” she said, adding that property owners should feel free to leave a message on her voice mail at 620-382-2945 and she’ll respond as soon as she can.
“Until things start settling down, and I get a good chunk of this stuff taken care of, it’s going to be challenging for the public to get a hold of me.”
But she’s focused on getting settled into her new position.
“The job is challenging, no matter what jurisdiction you’re in,” she said. “But I thrive on that. And I thrive on increasing my knowledge. If it wasn’t challenging, I wouldn’t want to do it. The challenges are the rewards.”