Government

Johnson County acquires 132-acre 'jewel'

Conservation deal critics question cost and developments

Celebration Barn at 4045 245th Street NE in Solon on Tuesday, Apr. 17, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Celebration Barn at 4045 245th Street NE in Solon on Tuesday, Apr. 17, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — The Johnson County Conservation Board on Tuesday unanimously approved a nearly $3 million purchase of 132 acres that encompass woods and buildings, including four round barns, a railroad museum and a sawmill.

“When people see what this is and what this will become, they will be very happy,” Johnson County Supervisor Mike Carberry said. “This will become the jewel of Johnson County.”

The seven contiguous parcels were purchased by the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, and the county will buy it back in two installments through 2019. Dick Schwab and Katherine Burford sold the land for under its assessed value of $3.89 million, county Conservation Director Larry Gullett said.

Visitors will be able to see a functioning farm, much like Living History Farms in the Des Moines area, Gullett said.

But the project has not been without controversy over whether it is a proper use of the bond.

Supervisor Janelle Rettig voted against the county’s $127.7 million fiscal 2019 budget last month because she opposed the county’s decision to buy land with “substantial infrastructure, an event center, buildings, a home, and more,” she wrote in a March 1 email to a Gazette reporter.

“At $3 million dollars, this one project will take up 15 percent of the 2008 voter-approved conservation bond initiative,” Rettig wrote.

Rettig said some of the parcels contain valuable woodland, which she thinks fit the purpose of conservation funding. But “spending our limited resources on buildings is not what I voted for and campaigned for in 2008,” she said.

Rettig also said county officials should be been less secretive about the potential purchase.

Gullett said county officials were obligated by law to not talk publicly about the proposed property purchase until it was done. Purchasing only part of the property was not an option, plus Gullett said he welcomes the opportunity to use some of the structures on the site for education.

Schwab owns Celebration Farm, a large events venue west of Highway 1 north of Iowa City, but that parcel is not included in the land sale.

Johnson County’s land will include Celebration Barn, a second limestone barn south of Solon, for which Schwab has a permit for up to 12 events a year.

Gullett anticipates those events will continue under county ownership. The county already has a reservation setup for campsites and shelters, he said.

“At Kent Park, we have 20 to 25 weddings a year,” he said, referring to another county park.

Johnson County residents Carol deProsse and Caroline Dieterle wrote an April 6 guest opinion in the Iowa City Press-Citizen criticizing the land deal.

One of their complaints is that Schwab has not done woodland mitigation he was required to do as part of an agreement with the county. The county sent him a notice of violation in March, to which Schwab submitted a new woodland mitigation proposal April 11.

Carberry said Schwab still will be responsible for the mitigation, even with the property sale.

Schwab and Burford plan to move in March, but will help county officials until then understand operations and maintenance of the property, Gullett said.

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The Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, of Des Moines, formed in 1979 to protect Iowa land for the public. It routinely works with county conservation boards to identify land with “significant natural resource value” for public purchase, according to the group’s website.

Properties often border existing public land, such as state parks or wildlife management areas. The Schwab land connects with other public lands, including the Sugar Bottom Recreation Area owned by the federal government.

l Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

Madison Arnold of The Gazette contributed to this report.

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