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Coralville land purchase takes NL by surprise, officials say

NORTH LIBERTY– At least three North Liberty City Council members and the mayor said last Tuesday a proposed land purchase by the City of Coralville, located in the fringe area formerly shared by the two communities, took them by surprise.
In turn, Coralville officials are just as surprised by North Liberty’s reaction.
Coralville approved a $3.5 million purchase of 47 acres of land from Diana Pratt and Moondance, LLC, located in an unincorporated area of Johnson County between Coralville’s northeastern city limits and North Liberty’s southeastern boundary. Coralville plans to prepare the property for the city’s eventual northward expansion, said Coralville City Manager Kelly Hayworth.
“The plans are to do several things,” said Hayworth. “First, we will finalize a plan for our eventual sewer expansion, which crosses diagonally across the property. Also, we are looking at the extension of Forevergreen Road, and how it would go through the property. Once those things are in place, we would like to sell off the remaining parcels of the property– those that would not be affected– for development.”
Coralville’s northern border runs right up to the south side of Forevergreen Road, which terminates to the east at 12th Avenue Extension. Coralville wants to extend Forevergreen eastward to Dubuque Street, a concept Hayworth said Coralville, North Liberty and Johnson County officials have been working on collaboratively for years.
“We will continue working with North Liberty, to determine where Forevergreen would go through North Liberty properties, and work out a plan jointly to expand Forevergreen all the way to Dubuque Street,” said Hayworth.
In fact, Hayworth said, city officials from Coralville and North Liberty have been in regular communication about the unincorporated area between the two cities all along, sharing discussions on the road as well as exchanging sewer studies for each of the cities that fall into the shared fringe area.
“We’ve had, over the last couple or three years, personal meetings with the mayor (Tom Salm) and (City Administrator) Ryan Heiar to talk about these issues, trying to get them worked out,” said Hayworth. “Personal meetings have been our primary method of communication.”
North Liberty Mayor Salm agreed, at least on that point.
“We recently exchanged sewer study reports,” Salm said. The documents were part of large, comprehensive studies done on each community’s sewer facilities that evaluate things like size, capacity and flow rates of existing sewers, as well as look at potential future sewer expansion in the surrounding regions outside city limits.
“You look at where you can run your low lines,” explained Salm. “The Pratt property is one common area where both Coralville and North Liberty sewers could eventually run. Coralville gave us their sewer study a week ago. We talked with Coralville about sharing an easement on the property; we were trying to figure out how that shared easement was going to work in there, regardless of any annexation issues.”
It was even mentioned that the Pratt property was for sale, Salm said. What was not discussed during that exchange, he noted, was Coralville’s intention to buy it.
And that omission is a problem for North Liberty, since the entire area has been the focus of negotiations between the two communities since they filed competing annexation applications for certain properties in their fringe areas with the state’s City Development Board. Coralville’s initial annexation plan was to obtain the 387-acre Scanlon Farm property to develop it for residential use.
That effort was stalled when abutting property owners organized as the Citizens for Sensible Development (CSD) and filed an injunction against Coralville for improper notification of the annexation in 2006; the Iowa Court of Appeals ruled in CSD’s favor in November 2009. Meanwhile, the property owners asked North Liberty to annex them into North Liberty’s city limits instead.
In 2007, North Liberty complied with an application for a 100 percent voluntary annexation, and later with an 80/20 annexation request, to the City Development Board, but later asked the board to table both annexation requests so the two cities could work out a compromise.
The result was a map, created in March 2010, that both cities thought everyone– including the resistant citizens in the unincorporated area– could live with. It granted Coralville the Scanlon property, and a narrow corridor of land east of Coralville city limits to access it. Everything outside that agreed-upon boundary was to have been left alone, at least for now, Salm said.
“Coralville and North Liberty had a verbal agreement that, as part of the Scanlon property, neither city would annex any of the land in between, and Coralville was going to limit themselves to that kidney-shaped area,” Salm said, referring to the image on the unofficial map of compromise.
The catch being that the map remains, indeed, unofficial. And no attempt has been made to formalize a document between the two cities since their Fringe Area Agreement expired in 2006.
“The North Liberty council was in no hurry, because we didn’t have an interest in moving quickly on annexation,” said Salm. “We came up with a compromise to see what might work between the two cities, and agreed to revisit it later.”
Distracted in the interim by several major city projects, the hiring of a new city administrator and a recent court case filed by citizens protesting a large economic development venture, time for review got away from North Liberty, Salm conceded.
“It may have gone a little longer than we planned.”
Despite a perception that North Liberty was notified much sooner, Salm said, Coralville and North Liberty officials did not speak of the intended purchase until Thursday, May 19, when he got a call at home from Coralville Mayor Jim Fausett.
“It was kind of a shock,” Salm said.
The North Liberty City Council took it up for discussion during the Mayor’s Report portion of the city council meeting the following Tuesday, May 24. Salm said he emailed Mayor Fausett to ask Coralville to table their Tuesday night decision, but was told they would not. Councilors Coleen Chipman, Gerry Kuhl and Terry Donahue all expressed displeasure with Coralville’s decision.
“I would like to leave our options on the table,” said Chipman. “I think we were definitely surprised by it, and this just changed things quite a bit. Kelly Hayworth’s comment was that at some point they would be annexing in, which does not go with what we were considering at the time for the boundary lines.”
Donahue suggested reconvening discussions with CSD members about North Liberty’s previous annexation requests. “We may win, we may lose, but at least it’s off dead center,” he said.
Kuhl also supported moving forward with the request for annexation of the area. “I want the petition before the City Development Board to move forward. Win, lose or draw, we need to get it resolved,” said Kuhl. “I don’t think Coralville is going to listen to the CSD, they are not going to listen to us, they’re going to do their own thing. Let’s go!”
As of last Friday, neither city had communicated with CSD members since Coralville approved its purchase at its Tuesday, May 24 meeting.
CSD members issued a statement this week, saying their support of North Liberty’s annexation proposal is as “steadfast as ever,” and the group is still vested in the outcome, said CSD member Douglas Paul.
“If offered a choice between annexation to North Liberty or annexation to Coralville, more than 90 percent of the property owners surrounding the Scanlon property would chose North Liberty,” wrote Paul and Granner; the group feels Coralville’s purchase offer was announced and voted on without allowing any time for citizen input, and without any discussion with the North Liberty Council or the county Board of Supervisors. The purchase is a strategic move to circumvent the system established for the expansion of cities, they said, and Coralville’s action offers a clear example of why North Corridor residents would prefer annexation to North Liberty.
“Should the North Liberty Council vote to untable the annexation proposals, CSD would respectfully request an opportunity to assist in preparing North Liberty’s presentation to the City Development Board.”
However, they wrote, North Liberty never offered a clear explanation as to why the annexation proposals were indefinitely tabled, and they know they cannot force action on the proposals. It has to be North Liberty’s move.
“In light of Coralville’s recent action, unless the North Liberty Council untables the proposals at this time, North Liberty is effectively surrendering the Scanlon property to Coralville,” said CSD members.
Salm ultimately asked City Attorney Scott Peterson to research North Liberty’s legal options and present them in an upcoming special meeting. As of Tuesday, May 31, the date or agenda for that meeting had not been set.
Hayworth, though, is still counting on more discussion between the two cities.
“It’s very important for us to continue the communication, and we hope we can get this all worked out,” Hayworth said, with North Liberty as well as with the county residents.
“I do believe at some point, once the planning process is complete, annexation will be part of the process. The intent would be not to involve anyone that did not want to be voluntarily annexed, and it looks like this plan could accomplish that,” Hayworth said.