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Johnson County planners touch up language in the proposed comprehensive plan
North Liberty resident Jesse Burns addresses the Johnson County Board of Supervisors regarding the proposed Comprehensive Plan during a Thursday, Jan. 18, work session. Burns expressed concerns regarding the potential impact of the plan on farming, construction and the real estate market in Johnson County and urged the Supervisors to build in flexibility to accommodate changes in the economy, markets and peoples’ needs. (photos by Chris Umscheid)

IOWA CITY– Johnson County’s first ever, and at times controversial, comprehensive plan is in its final phase of development, and should be in final draft form at the end of the month.
The Johnson County Board of Supervisors held a work session on Thursday, Jan. 18, at the County Administrative Building in Iowa City where board members discussed changes to the current draft plan with Planning, Development and Sustainability (PDS) staff.
“We’ve been going through this comp plan process for almost one year now,” Josh Busard, PDS director, said. “We’ve had many, many meetings.” Those meetings started in November of 2016 and have included comprehensive planning committee meetings, “envision meetings,” focus groups, public input sessions, supervisors’ work sessions and a public open house. In addition, two public surveys and an online comment period were also part of the process used to formulate the document, which will go beyond previous land use plans as an attempt to address future growth and development in the unincorporated areas of Johnson County.
Busard acknowledged the comments received from the public, which were provided to the supervisors and are posted online at www.jocoplan.com. “Some comments were good and very helpful, some comments, you know, they were there, and some…they just liked the plan,” he said. He added changes were made to the draft based on some of the comments, in an effort to reduce confusion, to clarify and to clean up duplicate and contradictory statements.
Supervisor Rod Sullivan confirmed the board had received the comments some time ago.
“Just so the public knows, it’s not like today is the first time we’re ever seeing these comments,” he said. “We’ve had a chance to read them, digest them and think about them. Just so everybody knows, we’ve read everything that’s there.”
The PDS staff went through the draft plan showing the supervisors the changes they’d made, which consisted of fine-tuning the language of the document rather than changing policies or altering the plan itself.
An example came when the definition of “food system infrastructure” was looked at and discussed. “Food system infrastructure, we have a lot of it already, right? I would say that’s what our gravel roads are… farm to market… that’s all basically ‘food system infrastructure,’” Sullivan said. “Food system infrastructure could include meat packing plants in Columbus Junction,” he added. “Are we talking local food system here? Are we talking food system in general?”
Sullivan said one of the overriding things the board has heard during the plan process has been different agricultural communities feeling left out.
“People who are quote-unquote traditional farmers say, ‘you’re not giving consideration to us and what we need.’ And then local food farmers say, ‘we want more.’ I think both are saying they want more oomph, if you will, in the plan to talk about their specific part,” he said. “This (section of the draft plan) is really general, and I just want to make sure you intended it to be really general.”
Assistant Planner Mitch Brouse agreed it was written in general terms, adding the PDS or the board would ultimately decide what “food system infrastructure” means. “We keep coming back to the issue of CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations), which are ‘food system infrastructure,’” Sullivan said. “There’s a group of people that think that’s good, and there are people that think that’s bad.”
Supervisor Kurt Friese gave his definition, saying, “I’d say it’s focusing on food that’s grown, produced, processed and consumed in Johnson County. I welcome other ideas under this particular action step, but the ones that I’ll be pushing for are things like the Food Hub, and farm incubation.”
Brouse said a separate process might be required to craft an exact definition, reiterating the definition was left broad at this point for that reason.
The board and PDS staff returned to the subject of local food later in the meeting.
“I think if Johnson County wants to define what Johnson County thinks are local foods, we should probably do that when we draw up a plan for our food system, but we think it might be helpful to have a ‘pop out’ (graphic element in the printed plan) that gives a general definition of what it is,” Brouse said.
He read aloud the proposed definition: “Local food is grown, processed and consumed locally” he said, but added the definition of ‘local’ often changes, “depending on who you’re talking to.” Brouse cited an article, which described “local food” as being from your county or a neighboring county. He said PDS staff calculated what that would mean for Johnson County under two separate methods. One totaled nearly 6,500 square miles while another equaled roughly 4,600 square miles and looked at counties either directly bordering Johnson County, or were in close proximity, such as meeting at a corner or being within a mile or two (Benton, Jones and Keokuk).
Friese said he wanted to be sure they avoided the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) definition, which he stated, considers food local if within a 450-mile radius. “Food from Minneapolis and Kansas City would be considered local,” Friese added, to chuckles and laughter.
Friese said ultimately he would prefer a definition, “Not too big, but also not too restrictive.”
Sullivan asked what the purpose is behind defining “local food,” and was told comments had been received indicating the term was used frequently in the plan, but never defined. Sullivan also pointed out local producers often have far-reaching customers well beyond the Johnson County borders, including some who ship as far away as Hawaii. “I think we all feel very much like that’s a local producer,” Sullivan added.
“I don’t feel the need to draw a boundary and name counties,” board chairman Mike Carberry said.
“It’s really a moving target,” Brouse said.
Friese suggested a possible scoring system as part of the food plan, while Carberry suggested stores post what he called “food miles,” which consumers could then use to decide for themselves if something is “local” or not. “They tell you where it’s grown and the number of miles from that store, and then you make the decision,” Carberry added.
Busard, acting on the Supervisors’ comments, suggested a general statement indicating the county is refining its local food system, and future plans will likely include a definition, which will be appropriate to Johnson County (as opposed to other definitions). “Six months or 12 months from now, it (definition) may be totally different,” Busard added.

CAFOs, as Sullivan mentioned, have been a hot topic of discussion throughout the plan process. The current draft plan states under the topic of agricultural land uses, “We should encourage best management practices.” Included as a “strategy” for accomplishing this goal is discouraging CAFOs in Johnson County. Supervisors have stated their desire for a moratorium on new CAFOs in the county as well as accomplishing their ideal goal of eliminating them completely.
Current state law prohibits county governments from regulating agriculture, which has led to lobbying efforts to obtain more local control.
The supervisors and PDS staff also discussed many other wording changes throughout the document addressing “tiny houses” and the potential need for adjustments and accommodations by the county for deviations from the UBC (Uniform Building Code), which the county has adopted; as well as regarding “sustainable (housing) developments” in the rural areas.
After working through the revisions, Busard explained to the supervisors how the PDS staff will be assigned tasks outlined in the comprehensive plan, noting priorities have not been assigned, because, “Everything is a priority.” Busard did explain the various timelines for achieving goals laid out in the plan, ranging from “ongoing” to “short-term (within less than two years),” “mid-term (within two to five years),” and “long range (more than five years)” to achieve.
Sullivan suggested the board ought to consider evaluating the progress, or lack thereof, of achieving plan goals every six months. Carberry pointed out the comprehensive plan is a “living document,” subject to change as needed as priorities shift or other factors require. The comprehensive plan website does state the plan, “…consists of goals and objectives that establish the county’s vision for the future. The comprehensive plan is not a legal document. It does not dictate how the community is to be developed, but is meant to outline a possible future that could occur over the next 10 years through the use of planning and investment policies and regulatory tools.”
It was suggested the PDS leave themselves an “out,” in case goals are not able to be met as hoped, by including the projected timelines are “estimates that may not be achieved.”
The final draft of the plan is expected to be posted on the website by late on Monday, Jan. 29, or during the day on Tuesday, Jan. 30. The Johnson County Planning and Zoning (P&Z) Commission is to review the plan on Monday, Feb. 12. P&Z could theoretically vote to approve the plan Monday, March 19, or could offer recommendations to the supervisors.
However, the Supervisors are not required to act upon P&Z’s recommendations, and if changes were made, the board would not have to resubmit the plan to P&Z.
A public hearing is anticipated for Thursday, April 12, with the supervisors possibly voting to approve on Thursday, April 19.
Carberry asked his fellow supervisors if there were any “deal-breakers” needing to be addressed and referred jokingly to the plan process as, “The art of making sausage,” a reference to a quote by Otto von Bismarck, who famously remarked, “Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.”
Supervisor Janelle Rettig was not in a joking mood, however, and stated she is not comfortable, for a number of reasons, with the plan as it stands currently. She added she was not willing to debate those concerns during the work session, and said she will not be voting in favor of it. Supervisor Lisa Green-Douglass pointed out, “Not everything we wanted got in,” but expressed her support.
Carberry agreed with Green-Douglas saying, “Not everybody got everything they wanted. There were many compromises along the way,” and gave credit to public input for helping to shape the direction of the document. “It’s not perfect, but it will be a good plan,” Carberry added.