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It’s Official

Johnson County to lease, then purchase, Celebration Barn
MORE PHOTOSThe Johnson County Conservation Board approved entering a lease agreement with the Iowa Natural Heritage Trust Fund April 17 for seven parcels of land known as The Celebration Barn. Owners Dick Schwab and Katherine Burford sold 132 acres of land, including high-quality timber and Schwab’s round barn to the INHF, which in turn will lease the property to the county until it can be purchased. (file photo by Doug Lindner)

OXFORD– The Johnson County Conservation Board (JCCB) unanimously approved entering a lease agreement with the Iowa Natural Heritage Trust Fund (INHF) for seven parcels of land known as The Celebration Barn.
The board took action during a Tuesday, April 17, meeting at Kent Park, ending speculation and rumors regarding the purchase.
The land (132 acres total) includes more than 100 acres of high-quality forest adjacent to the Bur Oak Land Trust’s Big Grove Natural Area, four round barns built by former owner Dick Schwab, a smaller double-round barn, several other buildings, a collection of antique cars, trucks and tractors as well as a working sawmill and wood shop. A local foods operation with two greenhouses and a packinghouse, which grows organic vegetables and donates them to local food pantries and sells to families, is also located on-site.
Schwab and Katherine Burford sold the property to the INHF on Monday, April 16, and the organization will lease the property to Johnson County starting on July 2 of this year. The lease, $1 per month, for four parcels (including the barns) runs through December, or until the county purchases the land.
Johnson County Conservation Director Larry Gullett said the INHF is specifically established to serve as a bridge between government agencies and the private/business sector.
“As in this case, the wishes and timelines of private citizens and businesses do not always align with government agencies and budget timelines. The INHF helped bridge this gap so a project works for all the parties,” he said. “The INHF has helped with many projects in Johnson County, including Ciha Fen, Cedar River Crossing, Pechman Creek Delta and now this property.”
INHF involvement in the county’s conservation land acquisition projects is almost standard operating procedure, he noted, “as it is with many counties around Iowa.”
“Our staff will be responsible for managing this property,” Gullett told the conservation board. The county will also, per the lease agreement, provide insurance for the property as of July 2. Schwab and Burford will continue to live on the property until next spring, providing valuable insight for Gullett and his staff.
“Our management is predicated on Chapter 350 (County Conservation Boards) of the Iowa Code,” he added. “When we lease this, we’re not leasing it just for county conservation use, this will be leased for public use, just like all of our conservation areas. The public will have full use of the area.”
The Celebration Barn is adjacent to the Coralville Lake area, “so people hiking or walking the trails through the site will have access to the thousands of acres and miles of public land along the Iowa River Corridor,” a handout provided to media at the meeting stated. “It is our hope that sometime in the future all of the management agencies, including the Bur Oak Land Trust, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Johnson County Conservation, can all work together in management of these public lands.”
While the INHF now owns all 132 acres, the county will lease, and then acquire, 99 acres this fall.
“It is important we begin managing the area to learn about the operational requirements,” Gullett said in an email follow-up after the meeting. “We cannot get the funds to acquire the first 99 acres until this fall.”
The county will purchase the remaining acreage in the fall of 2019.
The property has an appraised value of $3.937 million and was sold to the INHF for $2.839 million. Johnson County, through the conservation bond, will pay $1.72 million for the first portion this fall, with all of the structures donated, and will pay $1.119 million next year for the remainder. The structures alone constitute a $1.098 million donation and the many vehicles, machinery, equipment and other historic artifacts represent a $200,000 donation. All told, this is the largest ever private donation to the conservation program in Johnson County.
“Through the generosity of the landowners, Dick Schwab and Katherine Burford, thousands of people of all ages will benefit for generations to come,” the handout stated.
The project has been in the works for 10 months, Gullett said.
Speculation about the purchase, and objections to it, appeared in late February and early March as Iowa City residents Caroline Dieterle and Carol deProsse submitted a letter to the editor, which ran in the Solon Economist and North Liberty Leader. Dieterle also addressed the Johnson County Board of Supervisors during a March 8 meeting, stating her objections to using conservation bond funds for the purchase, and calling into question the closed-door meetings. Supervisor Janelle Rettig also criticized what she called a lack of transparency and objected to the possible purchase, vowing to vote against it via a “no” vote on the fiscal year 2019 budget.
At the time, no public statement had been issued by the supervisors, county conservation staff or conservation board members confirming the property was being considered for purchase. Executive (closed) sessions were held by the conservation board in accordance with Iowa Code Chapter 21 (the Open Meeting Law), Section 21.5, which states such sessions are permitted “to discuss the purchase or sale of particular real estate only when premature disclosure could be reasonably expected to increase the price the governmental body would have to pay for that property or reduce the price the governmental body would receive for that property.”
“All of our agendas and executive sessions are closely monitored by the county attorney’s office,” Gullett said. “We feel confident in what we do. All land acquisition projects are handled this way. We have completed 10 of them since I started (in Johnson County) in 2013, and all are handled in this manner. We are currently working on several other acquisitions, and all of them in executive session.”
Acquiring the Celebration Barn, with its many diverse features, “will support incredible opportunities for education programs related to Iowa’s natural and cultural history,” Gullett said. Examples include forest ecology, forest products, water quality, gardening, local food production, agricultural history, transportation history, railroad history, sustainable design using local materials (the round barns are constructed of Iowa limestone and wood from trees downed by storms, for example), and a promotion of healthy lifestyles through participation in outdoor activities that strengthen mental and physical well being.
In addition to the four round barns, the site contains the largest mortar-less stone arch in North America (also, one of the largest on Earth) and a maze formed by paths modeled after a famous labyrinth in Chartres, France, which was built in the 13th century.
Gullett said the conservation board would soon begin a planning process to work through the management and operational issues, “just like we do for all of our projects. We are hopeful the area can serve as a working landscape, much like how it is today, but with a much stronger educational element.”
Alice Atkinson, president of the conservation board, said after touring the property last summer, the board wondered, “Oh my gosh, can we do this? And, we can. It’s worked through and we are all excited about the opportunities that are going to be available there, the education opportunities that will be there, and it was a unanimous decision to sign the Memorandum Of Understanding (MOU) to eventually purchase the property.”
“Through the generosity of Dick Schwab and Katherine Burford, thousands of people of all ages will benefit for generations to come,” Gullett said, “because of this donation and bargain sale. On behalf of the conservation board, we want to thank Dick and Katherine for their generosity and patience in working with us and the Heritage Foundation.”