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City reviews proposal for new elderly, dementia care facility

Would require adding new use to city’s O/RP zoning ordinance

By Lori Lindner
North Liberty Leader
NORTH LIBERTY– A developer has approached the City of North Liberty, hoping to build a residential care facility for elderly patients and individuals with dementia.
A group of investors has tentatively proposed to build a three-story, two-wing facility with 12 adjoining cottages in the city’s Liberty Executive Park, just north of the new University of Iowa Community Credit Union (UICCU) member support center off Jones Boulevard.
The property is zoned O/RP, designated for office and research park businesses.
“When we created that district, the idea was to have something more of an office park environment, and the O/RP zoning does not include this type of use,” said North Liberty City Planner Dean Wheatley. While this building would in fact be a residential care facility, city staff felt it could potentially fit in this location, Wheatley explained.
“At least from the looks of the building, it would appear to be more office-oriented and professional-oriented, so our thoughts were that it may be an appropriate use,” Wheatley told the council.
The North Liberty Planning & Zoning (P&Z) Commission reviewed a draft amendment to the zoning ordinance at its Sept. 3 meeting to address proposed uses not part of an existing zoning class; like a residential facility in an O/RP district.
“It’s sort of a quasi-medical, commercial establishment. It’s not apartments, not condominiums. This has 24-hour staff caring for elderly and frail folks who live there,” Wheatley told the P&Z commission. Every unit would have skilled, 24-hour care available, Wheatley added.
The original intent of creating the O/RP district was to draw high quality office-type developments similar to the credit union, Wheatley said.
“When this proposal came in and it (was) residential, at the staff level we had some misgivings at first, but what made it better was that it does have the 24-hour care. It is not a straightforward residential development; it has more commercial characteristics.”
North Liberty City Administrator Ryan Heiar told the P&Z board that the facility would have between 60-80 employees.
The 12 on-site cottages would be for people whose spouses may be in the full-time care facility, so they could live nearby, or transitional living for someone who is imminently going to need full-time care.
Mike Bails of Lepic-Kroeger Realtors– one of the investors in the project and the developer’s representative– told P&Z that one of the partners has a great deal of expertise and has operated a lot of these care facilities in the past. Bails said he and his fellow investors wanted to approach the city with preliminary designs and a concept plan to see if city officials were amenable to the project before moving ahead.
“We have a lot more work to do, a lot more money to invest on developing the building,” said Bails.
Annie Obrecht of P&Z asked if the city could use the same definition used by nursing care centers in order to include it in the O/RP zoning use table. However, Heiar cautioned against it.
“Depending on how that nursing home is structured, it may not have the commercial component we are looking for in this district,” said Heiar.
Even though they vocally supported the project, P&Z commissioners were uneasy enough about changing the wording in the zoning ordinance that Wheatley later offered a suggestion.
“We talked about it at staff level, and we think a better approach would be to ask them to submit a PAD (Planned Area of Development) and tie the use specifically to the site plan, so the two depend on each other. It gives us a little greater control over how this facility or another of its type might look,” Wheatley said “The planning commission members I communicated with via email were positive about it and thought it was a better solution.”
But two of the three council members in attendance at last week’s meeting were hesitant.
Councilor Chris Hoffman asked whether the project would be taxed as residential or commercial.
“I am uncertain on that,” Wheatley responded.
Hoffman said the city’s intent for that location was to spur commercial development.
“I’d prefer there be 100 percent commercial taxation out there. I’m not extremely thrilled it would be out there near the interstate, because we were hoping this would be a foot-traffic, office building type of area” Hoffman said. “I think this facility would be great to have in North Liberty, but I would prefer for it to be in a different commercial area within the community.”
Hoffman asked Julie Dancer– a Lepic-Kroeger agent with experience in healthcare sales and consulting, including the launch of 11 startup healthcare facilities– why this location was chosen.
Dancer said aside from North Liberty being underserved when it comes to options for elderly care, the Executive Park location is highly visible and convenient.
“It’s a nice location that buffers that residential neighborhood along with the commercial,” Dancer said. “It has easy access to shopping, to wellness center activities, and the thousands of people traveling from Linn to Johnson County, so (those) 55-year-old adult caregivers caring for their parents will also find it a convenient location in terms of commuting, and being able to stop in and check on mom or dad to and from work. The Corridor is absolutely lacking.”
Council member Brian Wayson agreed there are not enough housing options for the elderly in Johnson County, but was not convinced this proposed facility would meet the more significant demand he sees.
“I have a lot of experience dealing with elderly folks who need medical care in Johnson County; it’s a big problem. A private-pay facility is not going to be helpful in dealing with that situation,” Wayson said. “Clearly there are individuals who can afford that, but I think a lot of people can’t. If we are going to use tax rebate money to get a facility, I’d rather do it for a place that is nonprofit. That is actually the unmet need.”
Council member Coleen Chipman didn’t agree.
“Any development that goes in there is going to be there for a profit, no matter what it may be. Therefore I don’t think we can distinguish this as private pay, compared to any other business that moves in there, because they are all going to make a profit,” Chipman countered.
Chipman did ask city administration to provide more detailed information about how tax rebates would work for such a facility in that area. The lots abutting the credit union project were part of a 2011 negotiation process for the city to grant tax rebates to the credit union using Tax Increment Financing (TIF) revenues: $7 million to the UICCU, and $7 million to A&M Development LLC, which purchased the adjacent lots.
Wheatley said in an email subsequent to the meeting he remained uncertain how the property would be taxed, and how the rebates would be applied. However, he indicated to the council there could be other reasons developers were considering the Executive Park location.
“We have to remember there is TIF in place there. A lot of times development depends as much on ownership and relationships of owners to developers as location criteria does. I think this is one of those (situations) where those different factors are coming together on this particular property,” Wheatley said.
Wheatley told the council the developers’ intent was to take the council’s temperature on the project, as their next step of creating a site plan would cost a substantial amount.
“They are looking for guidance from council to see if you think this type of facility is appropriate in this location, and, if you think it is, that gives them some comfort in moving ahead,” Wheatley said.
After the meeting, Wheatley said he spoke to the developers after the meeting, and more discussions were to be held.
“They are glad the discussion was held so they better understand council’s concerns, but I don’t know yet how they, and we, might want to proceed– if at all. We will be having discussions this week,” Wheatley said.