Richards enjoys addressing county health issues

Tonya Richards likes best to do the things that improve the health and quality of life for people in Marion County in her job as the county sanitarian, also known as the director of environmental health.

She said she enjoys helping people develop a sanitary well water system, for instance, or develop an adequate sewage lagoon to replace the old straight pipe running down to the creek or out to a field.

That?s not all Richards likes. She?s also a county planning and zoning director who enjoys the dedication and fellowship she finds with the nine persons on the Marion County Planning Commission.

The nine are all volunteers appointed by the county commissioners, three from each commission district.

?They do a lot of hard work and research before each meeting,? she said.

Richards said it is uplifting to have volunteers who take the time to study, research and know their subject, and are totally dedicated to attending meetings. It takes illness or a serious crisis for a member to miss a meeting, she said.

What she likes least in her work, she said, is being forced to be a regulator, and to tell people what to do.

Personal background

Perhaps her likes and dislikes are just the symptoms of a person who grew up in rural Kansas with the values of helping neighbors and respecting their freedoms.

She said she still loves the qualities of life she found during her childhood at Hiawatha, and then when she moved as a sixth-grader to Goessel after her father got a job in Newton.

After graduating from Goessel High School, she attended Bethel College until she was married to Mark Richards the end of her junior year. He was a member of the Army Special Forces, and they moved to his post in the state of Washington.

Richards finished college at St. Martin?s University in Lacey, Wash., with a bachelor?s degree in business administration and minors in accounting and biology.

Tonya and Mark lived in Olympia, Wash.

Mark completed his service after two tours in Afghanistan and three tours in Iraq on such duties as cave searches for the enemy. He now works as a foreman for Hwa Davis Construction in Newton.

She and Mark moved back to Goessel when they decided to have children. Their son, Cole, was born in 2005, and daughter Isabelle was born in 2008.

Successor to Strait

Richards said she had thought she might become an accountant, but began to work under her predecessor for the county, Bobbi Strait, in June 2008, becoming director herself after Strait left a year ago.

Since then, Richards said, there have been changes in county goals although much of what she does has remained the same.

One change is a campaign to get patrons to tear down dilapidated buildings around the county that aren?t being used.

To encourage such activity, Richards said a person doing this is allowed to take up to 10 loads of commercial and demolition waste from the demolition site to the county transfer station without extra charge.

?I am surprised sometimes,? she said, ?by how many people would like to tear down old buildings, but can?t afford the demolition. They often don?t have the equipment themselves, or maybe they are elderly.

?Whether it?s with this, or a sanitation issue, people can always come to us to get help or research ideas. We?re here to help people, not penalize them.?

Handling complaints

Sometimes people have complained that a person is operating an unsanitary, illegal salvage operation, or has too much solid waste lying around.

In the first place, she doesn?t seek out such violations. It takes a complaint or a serious and obvious health issue for her to act against a violator.

In two situations dealing with illegal salvage dumps, she also works with a violator to get it cleaned up before the state has to be called in.

Richards said she can give a violator 30 days to show action cleaning up; if progress has been made, she can give them another 30 days. If there is no action, she may have to turn the violator in to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment for action.

In another changing situation, Richards said she and the planning commission are working on getting all commercial zoning permits in the county changed into conditional-use permits to enable permanent control over what is located there.

She said a conditional-use permit might be issued for a person to operate an automobile-repair business, but if a commercial zoning permit had been issued instead, if that person leaves, a new person could put in a bar.

A new business would always have to get a new conditional-use permit, she said.

Richards said much of her work preparing for the planning commission, from preparing and presenting the background work to obtaining aerial photographs.

She does routine zoning permits administratively. But variances?such as applications to be less than required distances from neighbors or roads?and conditional-use permits go to the commission.

The commission may also sit as a board of zoning appeals. There is a 14-day period allowed for protesting decisions.

She credits David Yearout, planning and zoning director for Riley County and for Junction City, as a great help as a consultant to Marion County.

Although the planning commission approves variances and conditional-use permits, their decisions go on to the county commission for its approval also, she said.

A variety of duties

Richards said the planning commission must work on updating and rewriting bylaws. A new issue coming up will be regulations for the brighter LED lights that are replacing neon signs, she said.

She added that placement of lights on towers in the county has been a commission issue.

There are also new regulations to write for developments, such as wind-turbine farms, Richards said.

On the sanitarian side of her work, Richards reminded patrons there is no use in paying $60 or $70 for a certificate of sanitation for a water well test for bacteria or nitrates when her department will do it for any county resident for $15.

Richards also is a certified asbestos inspector who can give directions for cleaning up asbestos, ?or tell you when it?s time to call for the hazardous materials guy in the space suit.?

Richards also is the county?s flood plain administrator called upon to work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency for compensation during flood damage.

As such, she said she could also advise county residents on whether they are in a flood plain qualifying for federal flood plain insurance.

Many people not in the flood plain should still have flood insurance for the unexpected disaster, she said, and she can advise them.

?We are here to help,? Richards said.

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