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A matter of perspective

County’s Planning & Zoning administrator explains Rural Cluster zoning for development

IOWA CITY– Opponents of a proposed housing development on Newport Road and the Johnson County Planning and Zoning (P&Z) Department agree on one thing.
“Urban sprawl is not good.”
So said RJ Moore, assistant administrator of the department.
The development on land owned by Sharon Dooley at 2915 Newport Road, has sparked controversy and put the spotlight on urban-style housing in rural areas. It has also brought the term “Rural Cluster” (RC) to the forefront.
The Johnson County Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 in March to allow Dooley to rezone 90.89 acres of her farm from agricultural to RC, a designation adopted in 2010 by Johnson County designed to take the place of zoning for single homes on large lots with multiple homes on smaller lots. Dooley sought the rezoning in order to sell the property for a planned residential subdivision.
But mindful development of the county’s agricultural areas is far from recent; here, it dates back to at least 1996, when a process began to update the county’s North Corridor Land Use Plan. In 1998, the Johnson County Land Use Plan was created based on input from the public and planning professionals. At that time it was determined urban sprawl was not an efficient use of land, county resources or taxpayer dollars.
“It is more efficient if developments are more concentrated,” Moore said. “It’s best to have densities.”
A primary goal has been to protect agricultural land countywide. “We want to stay in the identified growth areas as long as possible while providing more housing.”
The 1998 Land Use Plan also made the rural clustering the preferred development style based in part on the work of Randall Arendt, an internationally recognized planning expert. Arendt’s books include required reading for examinations administered by the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP), and he is considered an advocate of conservation planning. Among the benefits of a clustered development cited by Arendt and Moore is protection of groundwater from pollution (through better waste management).
One requirement of clustered development in Johnson County is that half of the property is to remain undeveloped, with the intent that farmland can remain in production, and environmentally sensitive areas such as wetlands are protected.
In 2006 work began to update the 1998 plan, resulting in the 2008 Land Use Plan, the current standard. Rural clusters remained the preferred development model there as well.
“We like clustering and we want to stay with it,” Moore said. In February 2010, the Johnson County Planning and Zoning Commission voted to amend the Johnson County Unified Development Ordinance to add an “RC-Rural Cluster” zoning classification to encourage the protection and conservation of open spaces. In June, the board of supervisors unanimously approved the change.While developers and potential homeowners may like a three-to-five-acre lot out in the rural areas, Moore sees that as a waste of ground.
“We need to do housing as efficiently and effectively as possible, he said. Moore said more tax revenue is generated by having multiple houses in a given area, rather than one house on a large lot. The single house, he argues, does not provide enough revenue to pay for the services (secondary roads, sheriff’s office, local fire department, school district, etc.) it uses. Spreading the cost of the services across more homes is not only more efficient, it prevents taxpayers from effectively subsidizing someone who chooses to live in the country, Moore said. “We accrue so many benefits (by clustering), it’s just a good thing.”
Acknowledging detractors of the RC designation for the Dooley property, Moore said over the years, such opposition has actually helped in crafting the Land Use Plan, and he thanked them for their input. However, he stands by P&Z’s approval and supports the board of supervisors’ approval of rezoning 90 acres of agricultural land to RC.
“This is a residential area, plain and simple,” Moore said of the Newport Road area. While opponents have argued against that assessment, Moore pointed on a plat map to developments to the south and west of Newport Road, and several lots zoned residential in the immediate vicinity of the Dooley property. Moore and P&Z administrator Rick Dvorak both spoke of infill, or putting residential developments into the area already occupied by developments, keeping them in an identified growth area rather than scattering them throughout the County.
“This is infill,” Moore asserted.
If developed, the Dooley property would have 70 lots of approximately 1.3 acres each which Moore says maximizes the density without using all of the 90 acres and simultaneously maximizing environmental protection through shared wells and sewer systems.
The suitability of the land, previously zoned and used as cropland, was called into question during public meetings. Opponents claimed P&Z’s Land Evaluation Site Assessment (LESA), using an averaged Corn Suitability Rating (CSR) was flawed. Moore listened to the complaints and made adjustments.
“They were right, so I adjusted it accordingly,” he said. “They made me take a deeper look and I thank them.”
But, even with the corrected CSR, Moore stands by the determination that the ground in question is in the designated growth area and thus can and should be developed.
Opponents have pointed to the likelihood of increased conflicts between urbanites moving to the country and farmers who have been on the land for decades. Some opponents have even gone so far as to rent a parcel of farmland and start a small-scale hog operation directly across from Dooley to drive home their point. While Moore agrees urban and rural don’t always mix well, he said, “if we’re staying in our growth areas, it will decrease the potential for conflicts.” He added the clusters could even spur small, organic farms.
But, he cautioned those looking to move to the rural areas to realize there will still be tractors and combines on the roads and people will just have to learn to share the road. Moore also said, “if this development was in a non-growth area, we’d be wrong.” But, “this area has been in transition for 60 years. As long as there is agriculture, there will be conflicts. But those conflicts are decreasing with each passing year.”
Moore said the county is still evolving when it comes to planning and zoning, noting, “we’ve only had 15 years of good planning,” and added much of the opposition comes from perceptions. “As time goes on people will see and not be opposed (to the clustered developments),” he said.
While the Dooley property may see the first RC in that particular zoning district (Newport Road), the first true Rural Cluster was developed nearby along Prairie Du Chien Road in the early 2000s as Westcott Heights, Phase 3. Longview Estates, located near Hwy. 965 and I-380 near North Liberty is also a true cluster.
Moore looks at zoning in general as a necessary process, saying, “zoning protects property rights and is something that applies to all of us. Nobody makes anybody do anything. We show them (developers) the rules and say, ‘play by them.’”
Getting a development approved and built is a lengthy process, laid out by ordinance. If four or more lots are proposed, a preliminary plat is submitted to the P&Z department for review and brought before the P&Z commission. The commission is a recommending body only, but, “if it (the proposal) meets our requirements, we can’t say no,” said Moore. After the P&Z review, the board of supervisors gives or denies approval. Again though, if technically correct, the supervisors will generally approve. In the Dooley case, newly elected supervisor John Etheredge voted against the rezoning request.
After approval, the developer has a two-year period to submit a final plat for P&Z and board approval. The developer also has to put in the required infrastructure (roads, utilities, water, sewer). Again, the developer only has to comply with all requirements to gain approval.
Though not all will agree with him, Moore defended the Rural Cluster concept saying, “we still want to give people the choice of living in urban or rural areas, but rural might not be quite what you envision.”