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Green light for garden gazebo

By B. Adam Burke
North Liberty Leader
NEWPORT ROAD- Gazebo on the Green, the garden tour and wedding spot that has been in a holding pattern for months, has been granted a 12-month extension to host weddings.
Owner Mary Ellen Hill said she typically hosts 10 weddings on her 33 acres with over a dozen different gardens, woods and prairies that attract tourists and bridal parties who walk through the fields, shade and flower gardens each season. Her garden is also used for afternoon teas, baby and bridal showers.
Hill’s extension comes after a previous denial of an impassioned request for more time. Hill was told by the county her Conditional Use Permit (CUP) would expire for good in October 2011.
During a June 2011 meeting, members of the Johnson County Board of Adjustment quizzed Hill, Johnson County Planning & Zoning Assistant Administrator RJ Moore, and Assistant County Attorney Andy Chappell about special events venues like Dick Schwab’s round barns and Hill’s Gazebo on the Green. Moore said there might be an amendment to site plan review requirements that allow commercial zoning on non-paved roads in the future. During that meeting, Moore also said that weddings were never a permitted use for Hill’s gardens.
Hill’s request for an extension of her CUP was denied by the Board of Adjustment in August, but as a result of much discussion on the operations of home businesses, planning and zoning staff and county supervisors decided to revise the county’s home business ordinance to accommodate those that cater to special events. 
Hill said Moore suggested she ask for an extension on her CUP to continue for another year as the county works to write an ordinance amendment. Board of Adjustment members discussed Hill’s application for an extension of time limits again on Oct. 19.
“In the meantime, it would give us a year to reconstruct or reform our businesses, or do something different, or sell them or whatever,” said Hill. “But that year would give us the time to try to make some plans with our life.”
During the Oct. 19 meeting, Board of Adjustment member Bill Leefers asked Moore about any complaints against Hill’s business. Moore, connected to the meeting via speakerphone, said no there were no complaints against Hill’s gazebo events.
A motion to extend Hill’s conditional use permit passed 4-0, with member Dorothy Maher absent.
“I saw no difference between a wedding guest and a bus tour. They all come here to see the gardens,” Hill said, noting that she had meanwhile turned down 72 requests for special events to be held at her location.
Hill has 14 gardens and a large prairie path available for viewing by appointment, complemented by tiny tea rooms and sumptuous areas set up for after-tour catered parties. Her grounds also have a flower-drying facility and a small, one-story building with a restroom and basement. Ten cats roam the trails, flowerbeds and gazebo.
Although she received 72 calls this summer, with her permit up in the air, Hill wasn’t able to make any reservations for 2012. She called the extension a “hollow victory” for her business.
She said she will pin two charts on her wall this winter to help her decide what to do with her business; lists of the pros and the cons.
Then she said she’d add a third chart between them.
“What can I do to make the con a pro?” she asked.
The county’s new home business ordinance amendment is forthcoming and has come out of language developed in meetings with the county’s informal economic development committee.
“We have adopted a strategic plan to encourage diversification of our rural economic development, and allowing people with agricultural land to diversify their income,” said Johnson County Supervisor Janelle Rettig Rettig. “Part of that will be special events.”