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Linn County's conservation board will oversee $40 million bond, if it passes

Members have varied backgrounds

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CEDAR RAPIDS — If voters pass a land and water quality bond this November, Linn County’s Conservation Board will see a $40 million boost in its spending power.

And while the Linn County Board of Supervisors would have the final say on the issuance of bond dollars, it will be the five members of the conservation board who will identify which projects to pursue — and when — during the bond’s 20-year life span.

The conservation board currently has a budget of $2 million.

But who exactly are the members of that board?

They come from very different professions:

l Cindy Burke manages a horse farm.

l Steve Emerson is an architect and developer.

l Kristin Eschweiler is a business director at an auto dealership.

l Hillary Hughes works as a business appraiser.

l George Kanz worked as a civil engineer before he retired.

Members of the conservation board are appointed by the Board of Supervisors to staggered five-year terms. (See related story on the history of the conservation board.)

All five lay claim to caring about the quality of Iowa’s outdoors — its water and its land. Emerson, who spends his days building some of downtown’s biggest structures, calls his rural Linn County property his “place of serenity.”

Burke just a few years ago donated an 80-acre conservation easement to the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation to provide watershed buffers and wildlife habitats. Kanz spent about 40 years in civil engineering with a focus on buildings and parks.

Meanwhile, Hughes and Eschweiler said growing up in rural Iowa firmly established their love for the outdoors.

The conservation board as a group, Kanz said, decided years ago to begin taking steps toward a real investment in that direction.

“We know there’s a problem out there,” Kanz said. “I think there is a sentiment that if you want something to happen, you’ve got to do it.”

So the board’s members created a strategic investment plan in 2012, and from 2013 to 2015 they created master plans for the county’s three main parks — Pinicon Ridge, Squaw Creek Park and Morgan Creek. Those documents lay out potential projects and areas of future investment and focus for conservation efforts.

Percentages

Earlier this year, a public survey found 63 percent of Linn County respondents would support a land and water quality bond, and master planning efforts in previous years mirror several water quality measures proposed in the bond’s project list.

All that planning laid the framework for the eventual Linn County Water and Land Legacy Bond.

“This conversation didn’t just start now, this has been going on for years and years,” Eschweiler said. “Linn County residents have made it a passion of theirs and a need of theirs for a long time.”

In August, the Board of Supervisors agreed to put the bond before voters Nov. 8.

While some in the community have argued the bond language is too vague, conservation board members said a bond with so many projects needs to be flexible to allow for the best ability to leverage grant funds at the right time.

“Without having that list, there is going to be some sort of trust factor, and honestly over the next 20 years, the board is going to change ... but this group is passionately driven by conservation. There are no hidden agendas there,” Emerson said.

To add accountability, the conservation board and the supervisors passed resolutions establishing percentages — 55 percent for water quality and land protection, 30 percent for parks and 15 percent for trails — for the proposed Linn County Water and Land Legacy bond.

In addition, a list of nearly 30 water, park and trail projects have been named as potential bond projects.

With that, the board will use bond dollars to further invest in projects that fit the bond language and have more buying power to acquire watershed properties when land becomes available.

Officials said they will not use eminent domain to procure property, and bond dollars also will be used to leverage grant funds for added investment.

“This isn’t something that’s going to cost anybody a fortune ..., and you’re going to make this enormous impact on things that we all can share in,” Burke said.

As a bond, the referendum needs at least 60 percent approval to pass, so selling the bond to voters is one of the biggest challenges, Hughes said.

“Education is certainly something we’re really focused on, we’re really just occupying ourselves with any group that’s interested,” Hughes said.

“It’s just kind of that personal, one on one communication. We’re talking about this as much as we can and getting the word out there.”

HEAR MORE

Area residents can learn more about the Linn County Water and Land Legacy Bond, set for the Nov. 8 ballot, at the Linn Conservation Board’s next meeting.

What: A presentation and discussion on the bond

When: 5:30 p.m., Oct. 24

Where: Arts and Entertainment Center, Lowe Park, 4500 10th St., Marion

For all of The Gazette's Election 2016 coverage, please visit our election coverage center.

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