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Multiplication problem?

NORTH LIBERTY– Prompted by demand, North Liberty officials have been taking a closer look at the city’s growth; not just its population numbers, but its physical layout and the type of development occurring within and around the city.
The demand, said City Planner Dean Wheatley, is coming from developers asking to build additional multi-family housing neighborhoods. The problem is that land zoned for that type of housing is dwindling.
North Liberty’s Planning and Zoning Commission and the North Liberty City Council are now tasked with reviewing the city’s land use policy, and making some careful considerations about future development in North Liberty.
“The question is, does the council by policy want to accept more multi-family rezoning requests or not?” said Wheatley. “If they do, where should it go?”
The answers are still undetermined, though both council members and planning and zoning commissioners have begun to weigh in during their recent joint meetings. On June 21, Wheatley presented the current Land Use Plan map to the two groups, showing the types and locations of commercial, residential and industrial development throughout the city. Wheatley sought recommendation from the two groups about their vision for future development across the city.
“We are not talking about zoning,” Wheatley reminded the commission and council. “We are talking about land use policy; how we would like to see this part of the city develop.”
There has been a huge demand for high-density housing, Wheatley said, with developers asking to present such projects, but little existing land to put it.
One such project currently under consideration is Liberty’s Gate, an area of about five acres located off Kansas Avenue. An early concept plan proposed by Prime Ventures Construction indicates the site would be built with three multi-family style buildings containing 20 units each. In order for the project to proceed, the property must be rezoned from its existing commercial use to an RM-12 zoning.
The rezoning request does not comply with the current Land Use Plan map, and that’s where the city’s overall vision comes in; Wheatley hopes to help refine it, to help the city focus on where it wants to see different types of growth.
The Liberty’s Gate rezoning request passed through two readings of the North Liberty City Council, but not without some dissent – council member Gerry Kuhl voted against it– and with much discussion about the future of multi-family housing in North Liberty. The project lies in the corridor of land along West Penn Street, close to Interstate 380.
At the June 21 joint meeting, Council member Coleen Chipman said she would like to save that area, in general, for commercial development.
“North Liberty really has no other access to I-380 except Penn,” said Chipman. “I don’t want to give up this commercial. If we do that, we’ve lost the ability for a shopping mall to come in, or a mini mall or those types of things we need to reserve this for, to increase our tax base to keep property taxes low.”
Wheatley told the two boards they were not under pressure to make changes to the map.
“You may choose to make small, incremental changes for now and let it be good for a while, or make no change for a while,” he said. “The real reason this came up is because we are seeing lot of demand for higher density residential development. It doesn’t mean we have to respond to that,”
Planning and Zoning Commissioner Carol Haack agreed that turning commercial into residential property was not her preference.
“We have the advantage as far as how our land can be developed,” said Haack. “We don’t have to respond to developers demands because they’d like to have some quick and dirty multi-family buildings where it’s convenient. We have the best spot, the best interchange, and we don’t have to bow to what developers want. There are plenty of other places in our town that can be developed.”
Council member Kuhl provided some numbers, taken from real estate websites, that indicate North Liberty has enough multi-family housing already.
“As of May, 2011, there were 173 multi-family units on the market, and 32 sold during May. The inventory shows we have six-and-a-half to 19 months’ supply of multi-family units. A more typical supply of inventory would be three to four months. There is a widely-held perception that North Liberty has built too much multi-family.”
Kuhl said one local realtor told him people are losing between $5,000 and $10,000 when trying to sell existing units, because banks are willing to take a risk on financing new units, while used units remain on the market. “I agree with Coleen, don’t think we should sacrifice our commercial [land],” said Kuhl.
Council member Chris Hoffman also advocated for keeping the city’s industrial-zoned area intact, saving it for larger projects that could not be foreseen at this point.
Mayor Tom Salm said the city has not seen much interest in industrial operations locating in North Liberty of late.
Wheatley noted there is not the same kind of demand for industrial property as in the past.
“When we think of industrial, we think of uses that need a lot of water and a lot of sewer capacity,” he said. “There just isn’t that huge demand that there used to be. We have a lot of industrial land set aside for a city our size.”
Also abundant is commercial property, said developer Gary Watts, who attended the joint meeting.
“We’ve been trying to sell Liberty’s Gate [as commercial property] for 12 years now,” said Watts.
Haack asked Watts why he felt it was hard to sell commercial property in North Liberty.
“I think there is way too much commercial selection,” replied Watts. “The rules [for design standards] changed. It’s hard to get money for commercial right now. This economy is close to a depression. We are right on the interstate, and we have 20-some acres left in commercial. It’s an extremely tight commercial market.”
Last week, Wheatley said the council will make general updates to the Land Use Plan map, but a final direction on the city’s land use policy won’t be formalized until after the two groups resume their joint meetings in early August.
“There is no right or wrong in land use policy,” said Wheatley. “They hopefully will take a step back and think about the community as it exists today and how they envision it in the future. Once those thoughts come out, we can talk about the consequences of some of the decisions.”
“Right now, the large demand is for multi-family,” Wheatley continued. “If the council feels we have enough, one consequence is that growth will slow because we are not adding the multi-family that builds and fills quickly. The tax base may not grow as fast. None of this is necessarily good or bad, but they are considerations that council will need to take into account.”