By Lori Lindner
North Liberty Leader
NORTH LIBERTY– Two businesses recently seeking to locate in North Liberty have changed their minds, at least for now.
Scenic Development LLC, hoped to build a senior residential facility that would have provided three levels of living, from independent apartments to assisted living to skilled nursing care. The company, a 37-year-old Kansas-based firm that has other senior communities in Iowa– including Scenic Manor in Iowa Falls and Kennybrook Village in Grimes, proposed to buy 9.5 acres near the intersection of St. Andrews Drive and Jones Boulevard and build a 110-unit, $15 million facility there, part of which would be taxed as residential property, and part of which would have been taxed at the commercial rate.
However, Scenic Development’s consideration for building in North Liberty was based in part on the city offering some tax-related incentives, and the city council made it evident in their May 8 meeting they would not consider tax incentives on the residential portion of the facility, and were reserved in their willingness to consider tax incentives on the commercial part.
Further, three of the council members said they would not favor allowing the project in the proposed location.
Council member Brian Wayson called the location controversial, for such a project, referring to several previous meetings where neighboring property owners vocally opposed dense multi-family housing development in the area. In an interview with the Leader last week, Wayson clarified his position.
“Awhile back, there was a big fuss about everyone wanting it to be single family zoning. There were tons of meetings, we hammered it all out and eventually came up with a reasonable compromise,” Wayson said, by reconfiguring lot sizes and locations. “This (project) would require us to rezone part of the area again.” Wayson said without having many details on Scenic Development’s business plan or overall proposal, it was difficult to determine whether the project was a good fit for that area.
“If they wanted to come to North Liberty, we would be supportive, but they were asking for incentives and I was not comfortable with that, given the information that I had,” Wayson said.
Scenic Development was invited to come before the council to make a presentation, said North Liberty City Administrator Ryan Heiar, and he was in communication with company officials to set a date to do so. However, Heair said, they had a change of heart after watching the video of the council’s May 8 meeting.
“Those folks were able to watch council meeting online and had some concerns based on that conversation,” said Heiar, particularly the council’s hesitance about the location and the potential for incentives. “(Scenic Development was) pretty persistent in wanting a 5-year rebate on the entire facility, and the message I got from council was we were going to look at the commercial side of things for incentives.”
As of June 7, Heiar said, Scenic Development told him they were working on a project in another community in Iowa, and decided to put this one on hold.
Scenic Development’s Gib Wood confirmed that decision in a telephone interview last week.
“We have put it on hold,” Wood said. “It became a timing issue. We have another community in Iowa where we have a site that is ready to go, and we decided to proceed with that project.”
However, Wood said, the project may not be permanently off the table.
“We will revisit North Liberty once we get that project up and going. We like the community and we like the market,” Wood added.
It’s the second such decision regarding a significant development project in recent months. Casey’s General Stores, Inc., had proposed to build a new store on the corner of Highway 965 and Cherry Street, and made it all the way to the council’s approval of a site plan in December 2011. However, the city’s Planning & Zoning Commission recommended denial because its design– while meeting the city’s codified building standards– was not as refined as commission members would have liked for that location. After much discussion at the December 27 council meeting, the council passed the site plan with specific stipulations for Casey’s to enhance its façade with additional brick, use stamped, decorative bricks in portions of its sidewalks and install a sidewalk to the south.
The council gave City Planner Dean Wheatley authority to approve a revised site plan, and authorized City Attorney Scott Peterson to approve a site plan agreement once changes were made to the city’s satisfaction.
Neither came to pass. Attorney Douglas Beech, who stood before the council in December and assured the council the Casey’s store would look very nice and be built in keeping with the surrounding development, only offered one on-record comment last week on the current status of the project.
“We are no longer pursuing that site,” said Beech.
Heair said last week he was informed another buyer came in and made an offer on the entire property with the intent to develop it.
Whether or not any business looking to land in North Liberty will benefit from city-funded incentives will always be determined on a case-by-case basis, Heiar said. The city adopted a strategy for considering incentive requests last July, with a set of criteria to help guide the city in its decision about whether to offer financial assistance.
“Certainly they could have come to city council and make their case, but this strategy is basically the tool we are going to use if you feel that this business or job creator will have some sort of significant lasting benefit to the city,” said Heiar. “Not every business is going to appear before the council to make a pitch. A lot of the information is going to be vetted by staff before it comes in front of them.”
Scenic Development’s proposal– which was really only informal discussions with the city– didn’t make it that far, Heiar said.
“It was coming to that level. We were working to find a date to come before the council so they could make their presentation, but in my last discussion with them, that’s when they said they were going to put the project on hold,” said Heiar. “