A cluster of controversy
IOWA CITY– Opponents of a proposed housing development along Newport Road in northern Johnson County left the county administration building disappointed Tuesday night in the wake of a 4-1 vote by the board of supervisors. A proposal to rezone 90.89 acres owned by Sharon Dooley, wife of the late Mike Dooley, from agricultural land to Rural Cluster (RC), was the subject of contentious debate in a public hearing as the board approved the change in a combined first and second reading. The board is expected to make the final approval this week, opening the door for real estate agent Bill Young to move forward on plans for a 70-unit housing development.
Over 30 people spoke in the crowded supervisors’ chamber while up to 60 more people packed the hallway outside the room, watching on televisions. Dooley sat near the speakers’ podium, frequently shaking her head in reaction to her opponents, some of them friends and neighbors. It was the latest skirmish in an on-going battle.
The Planning and Zoning Commission(P&Z) was deadlocked 2-2 in a Feb. 11 vote to deny the change, sending the proposal to the supervisors without recommendation. Commission members Robert Conrad and Shelli Meyer voted to deny while Julie Van Dyke and Robert Saunders voted to approve.
The proposed development would be the first under the county’s RC designation, which was designed to take the place of zoning for single homes on large lots with multiple homes on smaller lots. R.J. Moore, the county’s assistant planner, explained the large lots are not appropriate today. Previously, a 100-unit development would put one house on each lot. Under the new plan, 100 units could still be built, but instead would only use 50 lots.
“That’s a good idea today,” Moore said. “With our local foods initiatives, small farmers are looking for smaller parcels of farm land where they could have their house there too.” Moore said the rural cluster is meant to allow the maximum density of housing units while only using half the ground. Moore also said the RC zoning is designed for environmental protection and to preserve farmland.
The Dooley property falls within the county’s North Corridor Development Area (NCDA), where there is a stated emphasis on protecting agricultural land. Opponents of this development seized on the value of farmland, attacking what they felt was a miscalculated Corn Suitability Rating (CSR) and decrying the loss of land for agriculture in general. Greg Pickett quoted Moore as saying a CSR of 65 or greater on 30 acres or more qualified as prime agricultural land. Pickett said over 52 acres of the Dooley property meet this criteria, and served as but one example of how the proposal did not meet all qualifications.
“This is good farm land,” agreed Doug Richou, also a Newport Road resident. “It is not meant for development.”
“The stats all speak against it,” said Iowa City resident and activist Tom Carsner. “Ag land is ag land is ag land. Who speaks for the land? Listen to the land. Listen to the people.”
Glen Shima of rural Solon declared, “Let this be farm ground so long as it’s farm ground. If this continues (developing farm ground), sooner or later, we’re going to run out of food.” Also giving an impassioned plea was Alisa Meggitt, another Newport Road resident. Meggitt educated the supervisors, saying 96 percent of the Earth is not suitable for agriculture, but that Iowa has 10 percent of the four percent that is. “You can never go back,” she said. Meggitt also cited 26,000 acres of farmland being taken out of production each year in Iowa. “Urban sprawl costs us all,” the North Central Junior High global studies teacher said. She noted she is a fan of the supervisors and reminded each one of their statements supporting the environment and agriculture. Meggitt urged them to live up to their promises and issued a call to protect all farmland.
“The number one concern of farmers,” said Norm Ziskovsky of Swisher, “is farmland for the future.” Ziskovsky, treasurer of the Iowa Cattlemen’s Foundation, showed photographs of farm land and said it made him sick to drive through North Liberty and seeing more and more houses being built on flat ground with rich dirt. “It’s destruction of ag ground,” he said. “Once we can no longer grow crops, raise hogs and raise cattle, somebody’s going to get hungry.”
Wells and water usage was also a concern, particularly after last year’s drought conditions. Jeff Peck, a Newport resident, acknowledged that people want to move to the country but lamented the loss of farmland. “Where does it stop?” he asked. Peck questioned the number of wells the development would need and said his neighbor’s well went dry last year. He expressed grave concerns over the effects on the water table such a development would bring.
Supervisor Rod Sullivan asked Moore about wells and was told, that community wells are required, they must meet state requirements, and they cannot influence adjoining wells.
“Water is always an issue,” Moore said.
Increased traffic on Newport road, long a concern of the area’s residents, was also brought up. In 1999, Newport residents asked that plans to reconstruct the road be scrapped, touching off a lengthy legal battle. In 2003, the Secondary Roads Department proposed a new road through the North Corridor, that would bypass Newport Road but slice through a number of properties. This led to the residents banding together in opposition. In 2007, Larry Meyers was elected to the board of supervisors in support of preserving the rural character of the area. Eventually, Newport Road and Prairie Du Chein Road plans were removed from the county’s 5 Year Road Plan.
An increase in traffic counts would, opponents argued, necessitate improvements to the road at the expense of the residents and county taxpayers in general. Peck told the supervisors he felt the latest traffic count was artificially low and in reality is over the threshold at which point improvements would be deemed necessary. Nick Sobocinski, who lives on Prairie Du Chein, called Newport Road, one of the last safe and scenic areas to ride a bike, and asked if avid cyclist and supervisor Janelle Rettig would feel safe with the current traffic, let alone the traffic the development would bring.
Where opposing a new road united the neighbors years ago, the rezoning request and proposed development has divided them. Friends and neighbors of Dooley stood inches from her as they took the podium and made their cases. Jim Sedlacek, who farms across Newport Road from Dooley and called her a friend, said he felt he was caught in the middle. Sedlacek said he drove through the area recently and marveled at the wide-open spaces, which would be filled with houses. “I heard the land cry-out,” he said. “Do something, do something.” Sedlacek told the supervisors.
Neighbor Amy Spencer made a plea on behalf of the late property owner Mike Dooley. “Mike fought for that farm,” Spencer said. “The kids have grown up and they’re gone, and Mrs. Dooley can’t handle the farm. So, she wants to sell it. We need to keep the farmland a farm. I’m not willing to live next to a cluster.”
Sharon Dooley’s response was brief and to the point.
“Everyone here had the opportunity to purchase 40 acres of ‘prime farmland,’ as they put it. The opposition claims how important it is to preserve farmland, and this area. But no one would make that commitment.” Dooley said her opponents have been “relentless in this obsession,” and seem to think they know what’s best. She and her family are still recovering from Mike’s death last fall, she said. “I don’t have time or strength for this kind of fight. The bottom line is, that I own this property, and as owner, I have property rights.” Dooley asked the supervisors to look past the drama and look sensibly at the rezoning request. “MMS and Mr. Young have worked diligently to meet the requirements,” Dooley said.
While most who spoke out were in opposition, some support came from speakers such as Bill Waldie, a former 28-year resident of the area. Waldie said protecting the beauty of the area with a cluster, makes sense, and feels the land use plan was put into effect to protect the area and keep farmland farmland while allowing some infill.
“If this proposal meets all of your requirements, is it appropriate to deny the rezoning request?” Waldie asked. “Is it fair to deny the landowner the most economic benefit they could gain from this land? If it does meet all requirements, and this is denied, what does that do for the county’s Land Use Plan? Does it make it moot? Does it need to be amended?”
Gerry Gogel, a township trustee, said he was neither for nor against the proposal, but countered the opposition. He reminded the supervisors, “the U.S. is a republic, not a democracy. So, you’re bound to follow the law here. If you don’t like the law, either the board or the people should change it.”
After public comments, it was time for the supervisors to ask questions and weigh in on the matter. Supervisor Terrence Neuzil directed his to Dooley.
“Do you want to do this to your land?” Neuzil asked.
“Nobody has worked harder, or loves this land more than I have,” she replied. “But things change. It’s not a matter of choice, it’s what we have to do.”
Neuzil told the crowd he would vote to approve the rezoning because the proposal meets the Land Use Plan. “The question really comes down to the give-and-take, the compromise I’ve given over 31 different amendments (to the Land Use Plan), and many of those clearly fall under this. For me now to say no, I don’t think that’s very honorable. I think it’s a bit hypocritical for me to vote against something I’ve put my signature on for the last eight years.”
“I think I’ve changed my mind at least 150 times over the past week or so,” said supervisor Pat Harney. Harney said he’s driven through the area multiple times and met with the neighbors. One farmer told him since the dam went in, the number of farmers in the area has dropped from 14 to just two. Harney also said he has concerns about the number of lots, but would go along with the Land Use Plan and approve the zoning change.
John Etheredge, in his first supervisor’s meeting since his recent election to the board, was the dissenting vote. Etheredge enjoyed electoral support from the rural parts of the county, with a significant showing in Newport Township, and made opposing the Dooley development a plank in his campaign platform.
“This development will potentially take up practically every bit of growth that’s available on that road,” Etheredge said. Any additional developments would exceed the capacity of the road (traffic count) and, will bring on a road upgrade, a major undertaking by the county, he said. “Increasing the population out there, and doubling the capacity of the road, with one development, is not something I can support. Because, if this is in the growth plan, which it clearly is, how are you going to develop the rest of that?”
Supervisor Rod Sullivan explained his vote of support.
“Everything I’ve done since I’ve been here, eight years, has been about protecting the family farms. Sometimes, family farmers have fought with me about it because we have different ideas about how to get to the same goals,” Sullivan said. In his opinion, protecting farmland was the number one goal of the Land Use Plan. Only about four percent of the county’s land is in the approved development areas. “Are you going to tell people you can’t ever build another house? There’s a part of me that actually is not opposed to that. I want to preserve the farmland. But there needs to be somewhere you can go.”
Sullivan said the NCDA was chosen for two main reasons: it was already pretty well developed, and the farm ground, in general, is worse.
“The whole time, we’re thinking about agriculture as we’re making this decision,” he said. Sullivan expressed regrets to the Sedlacek and Stebral families, saying he had no good answers for them.
“Every other farmer in Johnson County does so unencumbered by development. Unfortunately, for these two families, they play by a different set of rules. They got a raw deal,” Sullivan concluded.