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North Liberty reviews its land use policy

NORTH LIBERTY– It’s good to have a plan.
North Liberty has a Comprehensive Plan for its future and overall direction for the community. The way land is developed and used within a city is guided by its Comprehensive Plan, as well as forces like population shifts, market trends and demands for certain types of development.
It’s the latter that moved North Liberty Planner Dean Wheatley to suggest North Liberty officials to review the city’s current Land Use Plan map. Wheatley has seen increasing demands for high-density residential development, but there is little property designed for that type of use remaining in North Liberty.
Once they began reviewing the Land Use Plan, it was clear the map was out of date. It originated in 2005, Wheatley said.
“Since then, properties have been rezoned, and have developed in ways that did not match up with the guidance from the Land Use Plan map. So we recently brought the map mostly into conformance with what’s actually out there.”
Otherwise, changes have not been made to the map, Wheatley said, because the discussion on future development continues.
The Land Use Plan is just one part of the city’s overall Comprehensive Plan, Wheatley explained. All cities in Iowa that have zoning ordinances are required by law to also have a comprehensive plan, but there is no set format or specific items to be included. Comprehensive plans vary widely from city to city.
“Things you typically find in a comprehensive plan would be a section on land use, or it could include things like a section on transportation, housing, human services or any number of things. Some cities have individual plans for each of those topics. Each city approaches it differently.”
North Liberty’s Comprehensive Plan is a hybrid of policy and concept; a series of town meetings in 2004-05 sought input from community members on the desirable qualities of North Liberty and concerns to address as growth continued into the future. That input helped shape the 2005 Comprehensive Plan: it starts with a broad vision of overall goals for the town’s natural environment, land use, transportation systems, community facilities, operations and economic development; creates general policies relating to each of those aspects; and recommends direction to accomplish those goals through its stated policy guidelines.
A point to remember, Wheatley noted, is that the plan, and its map depicting future land use, is really just that; a general guideline.
“The first thing to understand is the Land Use Plan is not an ordinance,” he said. “It’s not the law that there will be commercial development here and residential development there. The plan offers guidance in making those decisions. Every developmental proposal that comes in is a little different.” Each, therefore, warrants individual consideration when brought before the governing bodies.
However, that is not to say the document is incidental. It does provide a vision for the overall look, feel and function of a city.
“There are broad guidelines when it come to land use; you try to separate uses so you don’t have negative impacts between very different uses, but at the same time, you want to provide opportunity, as much as possible, for people to live close to where they work, and not have to drive to get every single thing they need,” said Wheatley.
Decisions about land use impact the way people live and interact in their communities, the feel and appearance of the city, and its overall character. The city’s current Land Use Plan has guided many of those types of considerations.
“One thing I like about North Liberty– and it happened before I came here– is there really has been an emphasis on pedestrian accommodations,” Wheatley said. “We have good trails, a citywide trails plan, we require sidewalks in residential developments, and in new commercial projects, we are always looking for those pedestrian-oriented accommodations.”
There are no right or wrong ways to view land use, Wheatley added, other than how it fits into people’s vision for their community. That’s why regularly reviewing the land use policy is important, and why everyone in the community should pay attention to those discussions.
“It’s an opportunity for council– and any of the public who has an interest– to influence how the city will look in the future. Most cities don’t ignore their land use plans,” said Wheatley.
“People should think about it, understand and be vested in it, because it’s easy to complain when things don’t go the way you want, but it seems to be a challenge to get involved up front, so you have a say in how they are going,” he added.