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NL narrowly approves annexation moratorium

NORTH LIBERTY– The North Liberty and Coralville city councils both approved an agreement last Tuesday night that will seal the fate of future annexations by each city for the next 10 years.
The agreement maps out the currently unincorporated land lying between the two cities, dividing it into four areas and designating which city can annex each portion, and in what manner, until the agreement expires in 10 years. North Liberty City Administrator Ryan Heiar, City Attorney Scott Peterson and other city staff worked with Coralville over the last several months to hammer out details that would accommodate the three major factors driving the creation of the document in the first place: Coralville’s desire to annex and develop the Scanlon farm property, North Liberty’s inclination to control its future eastward expansion and the county residents who really just want to stay county residents.
Several of the latter reiterated their concerns about letting Coralville build out the Scanlon farm with high-density housing and commercial development.
County resident Daryl Granner said a report by the former Johnson County Council of Governments (JCCOG) showed North Liberty Road and Dubuque Street were “hot spots” for traffic accidents; seven in the designated area, four of which lie near the Scanlon property boundaries.
“Our issue all along has been traffic and public safety,” said Granner, referring to a JCCOG traffic count analysis report done on North Liberty Road and Dubuque Street. “The bottom line is, the current projections in the traffic model indicate a three-lane road in the future for this part of the county. If you think you’ve had difficulty with us up to this point, wait until future councils try to widen those streets.”
Other county residents expressed disappointment that city officials rejected their petition to voluntarily annex into North Liberty, after the 2007 council approved it and sent it to the City Development Board.
“I thought we had been encouraged on that annexation proposal,” said Janet Wessels. “But we never heard back on that.”
It took over an hour to hear all comments from the public, North Liberty City Council members and city staff before the council turned in its 3-2 vote, with councilors Gerry Kuhl and Terry Donahue voting against it.
Kuhl said he also was concerned about the potential increase in traffic on the rural roads, and was uncertain why the county property owners were not allowed input into the agreement.
“It concerns me that we had 138 property owners who were not involved in any of these negotiations,” said Kuhl. “I thought we should have brought a core group in to get their feelings and I think we would have had a better agreement.”
Finally, Kuhl said, he does not fully trust Coralville to honor the portion of the agreement that limits annexation outside the Scanlon Farm to voluntary means only. Iowa law considers an 80/20 annexation to be voluntary even if owners of 20 percent of the involved property oppose it. Therefore, a single landowner with a majority of property– in this scenario, Coralville, with nearly 500 acres of Scanlon farmland– could annex the properties of unwilling neighbors and still be in compliance with both Iowa statute and the agreement.
Council member Donahue said if the area outside of Scanlon Farm was still under consideration for Coralville, “they must still covet that area one way or the other. The 80/20 issue does bother me.” Donahue suggested the language be changed so that Coralville cannot use the Scanlon acreage as part of an 80/20 annexation plan to obtain surrounding properties. Ultimately, however, the agreement was approved as written.
City Attorney Peterson said the language was not intended to allow properties in Area B to be used to do an 80/20 voluntary annexation of any property in Area C. (see map). 
“From North Liberty’s perspective, we do not anticipate that will happen, based on our discussions with Coralville and our understanding of their intentions,” Peterson said in an email communication last week.
Mayor Tom Salm defended the document as the best tool available to manage both cities’ expansion into the area.
“This really isn’t a cure-all for what may happen in the future,” Salm told the audience. “This is a boundary agreement, and we are trying to protect our growth area. We are well aware there will be traffic problems and we don’t like it either. We are just trying to keep emotion out of this and do things logically.”
City Planner Dean Wheatley described the agreement as a “planning document.
“This is not an annexation. It is an agreement between two cities so property owners know where future boundaries are likely to be. It offers them some surety in what lies ahead,” Wheatley said.
Also, the agreement gives North Liberty an easement to extend its sanitary sewer on Coralville’s property, an important arrangement in the event of eastward growth, Wheatley added.
The expense of adding city utilities, roads and services was the main reason North Liberty dismissed the annexation requests of 2007, said council member Coleen Chipman.
“We had a study done by Fox Engineering, and they said you can’t service that area without it costing a lot more money because of gravity; we would need a lot of lift stations.”
Chipman acknowledged that county residents had signed a document stating they would not require North Liberty to provide city utilities, but if they were annexed, she feared North Liberty would be required to update those facilities.
“Leaving it alone isn’t always possible,” said Chipman. “What it would cost our current North Liberty citizens is a major concern. This isn’t very easy. It does comes down to what we can afford to do.”
Council member Chris Hoffman concurred.
“It’s about what is reasonable for us to do. That’s why we have a city engineer and a city planner, to (determine) what we can we reasonably service,” said Hoffman. “It’s millions of dollars for us to provide service out there. At some point in time there has to be a line drawn as to where we can provide service.”
Heiar told the gathering that North Liberty tried, as much as possible, to protect the outlying residents.
“The 80/20 area is a big chunk of land and it will make it difficult to annex some of those rural subdivisions,” Heiar said. “It avoids the situation where cities might rush to annex and beat another city. In this case, we have the areas defined, and the cities know where they can go.”
Besides, Heiar assured them, Coralville officials said throughout the negotiations they are not interested in annexing the rural subdivisions.
But Citizens for Sensible Development representative Doug Paul remained unconvinced.
“No matter what you call this agreement– a planning document, or moratorium– it is in fact an annexation deal to give the Scanlon farm to Coralville,” Paul said, and all Coralville has to do is wait 10 years to annex more property north toward Mehaffey Bridge Road. “Whatever North Liberty is getting is very small concession for surrendering the Scanlon farm to Coralville.”
And in the end, Paul and the cadre of county residents were finally resigned as they exited the council chambers en masse.
“I understand you will do what you will do, and we will live with it,” Paul said.

View the entire agreement in the city council packet of Oct. 11 at
www.northlibertyiowa.org.