Keith Hentzen found Sarpy County in 1976.
Then, the major roads were smaller, cities didn't feature big shopping centers, and data centers to process mega-computer power hadn't yet cropped up next to cornfields.
For Hentzen, a farm kid turned pharmacist, it was the ideal place to live. Nearly 40 years later, it still is.
“I love being in the hinterlands — but I'm close to Omaha,” he said from the drugstore and soda fountain he owns on Springfield's Main Street.
Still, Hentzen is among people who hope development stretches farther south and reaches his town of 1,600.
The less-developed areas of Sarpy County are on the minds of staff from county government and a couple of its cities.
That's why administrators from the county and cities of Papillion and Springfield are meeting to discuss what Sarpy County will look like in the future. Local officials are looking ahead in an attempt to decide what some of the remaining open spaces and farm fields should become.
“Most conversations are, 'Hey, what do you think this should look like?'" Fred Uhe, director of community and government relations for Sarpy County, said.
Along with the planning discussions, which have in particular focused on the Highway 50 corridor south of Highway 370, there are plans to resurrect a study that addresses extending sewers farther south. That's an issue developers have said prevents them from starting construction because the land isn't shovel-ready.
Both the planning process and sewer study are aimed at helping the county grow better and smarter.
Sarpy County's population growth is the fastest in the state, roughly doubling since 1980. Between 2002 and 2012, its population grew 28 percent, from about 129,500 to 165,900.
Along with the population spurt has come major development.
Werner Park opened in 2011 outside Papillion, a city that also has seen several new shopping centers. In Gretna, the new Nebraska Crossing Outlets mall made its debut in November.
Global insurance group Travelers Cos. is building a $200 million data center near Springfield, joining several other data centers in the county, including Fidelity, Yahoo and Cabela's.
South of Bellevue, a Missouri River bridge is set to open later this year — potentially attracting even more development.
The goals of the planning discussions are to start updating the county's master development plan and look at development regulations. Planners want growth to be “as compatible as possible” with city plans as cities annex land or extend their zoning areas, said Sarpy County Planning Director Bruce Fountain.
The discussion about sewers will lay the groundwork for future development.
Currently, the southern and far western areas of the county do not have sewer service available for development.
That's because a ridge line runs roughly east and west down the middle of Sarpy County. Land north of the line drains to the Papillion Creek, while land south of it drains to the Platte River. Sparking development south of the ridge will require building sewer infrastructure.
County Administrator Mark Wayne said County Engineer Dennis Wilson has $117,000 in this year's budget to start a study.
While Wilson hopes to have a proposal out for bids by the middle of the month, the study probably wouldn't start until March or April and could take a year to complete.
One of the main goals, Wayne said, is to get buy-in from all Sarpy jurisdictions in the Platte basin, develop a governance structure and fees, and open communication with stakeholders including the City of Omaha, Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District, Metropolitan Utilities District and Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality.
Papillion spokesman Darren Carlson said that the infrastructure is critical to development and that sewers will have to be addressed if Sarpy County is going to continue to grow.
“We're interested to see the outcomes of the study and continue to meet to discuss how Papillion is impacted and any future role we might play in a larger solution,” he said.
Some say frozen school district borders also are hurting growth because developers would rather build in the Papillion-La Vista school district than in Springfield Platteview.
During a November hearing, Papillion Mayor David Black said the frozen boundaries have already hurt the area financially and could stop economic activity in Sarpy County.
Black said that since the boundaries were frozen, fewer than 100 new residential lots have been approved in the Springfield Platteview district. He said that over the same in the Papillion-La Vista district, more than 3,000 homes have been built, 1,000 homes are under construction and 2 million square feet of new commercial development has been built.
At a November City Council meeting, Papillion City Administrator Dan Hoins called development in south Sarpy “probably the most pressing issue we're facing right now.”
The parties involved in the planning meetings emphasized that no decisions have been made and that discussions are very preliminary.
But they realize that with the arrival of Travelers and a national military cemetery, which is set to allow the first burials by summer 2015, the area will get more attention.
Some tension surrounds the discussions — but that's not new for Sarpy County. Sarpy cities and the county have historically fought over land that could expand their tax bases. And landowners haven't always been eager to sell their properties for development.
The touchy subject hasn't stopped Hentzen and Springfield Mayor Mike Dill from dreaming about what their area could look like.
Dill wants to someday see businesses along Highway 50, with housing behind that.
For now, the town is trying to make itself appealing to potential residents by focusing on its downtown, paving a block of city street near the new fire hall and building a splash pad.
There are plans to start updating the town's development plan this year, said Dave Potter of JEO Consulting Group, Springfield's planning consultant. Potter, who also works as a consultant for Gretna, said he expects Gretna officials to take a look at their plan within the next couple of years, too.
Cooperation among officials is necessary because “we have too much stuff in common” to be competitive, Dill said.
“We're excited to see how it turns out,” he said.