Private property prevails in I.C. 'party house' spat

Iowa City Council turns down public pressure in fierce zoning dispute

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Homebuilders, prepare to fight for your right to party.

Construction is underway on the so-called Kinnick party house in Iowa City’s Manville Heights neighborhood. The city hopes to prevent such fiercely contested proposals in the future, after neighbors argued for nearly a year that the house violates code and negatively impacts nearby homes.

City officials were wise to turn down public pressure and allow construction to proceed. Rejecting an application that meets prevailing standards, no matter how unpopular, would send a dangerous message about the rule of law.

However, the Lusk Avenue dustup also reminds us some residents’ voices ring louder in City Hall than others. Council and board members already have spent multiple sessions mulling the issue, in addition to untold hours spent by government staff.

To their credit, residents who can afford to print special yard signs and seek legal advice have the power to set the public agenda. Unfortunately, other grassroots organizers sometimes work for months or years before elected officials choose to take up their issues.

The new home in Manville Heights is designed to look like the University of Iowa’s Kinnick Stadium. Critics are worried the structure will be used as a party venue, drawing unwanted traffic and noise to their dead-end street during Hawkeye football.

Nevertheless, the project won all the necessary government approvals. It received a building permit from city staff, prevailed in an appeal to a city board, and survived a challenge in district court.

As frustrating as that may be for neighbors, the system worked correctly. Any restrictions on private property in a free society should be explicit and equitably enforced. City hall should be tightly wrapped in the same blindfold worn by Lady Justice.

Some complain there is a disconnect between the city’s comprehensive plan and the zoning code, but that shouldn’t obstruct the permitting process. The zoning code serves as regulatory law, while the comprehensive plan is merely an aspirational document.

The council has set out to find ways to fend off a similar fiasco in the future, but they’re finding it’s tricky to outlaw party houses within the bounds of the zoning code. Rules must be established for impartial government staff to carry out.

City leaders have brainstormed a wide range of possible restrictions, like limiting the number of bathrooms or kitchen amenities, but some worry those regulations would have unintended consequences.

“One of the things about administrative decision-making is that you have to specify what it is you want the administrator to look at,” City Attorney Eleanor Dilkes said at a meeting last week.

I detest municipal planning and zoning. It’s local government’s best impersonation of the nagging mom from the Beastie Boys song, “I’ll kick you out of my home if you don’t cut that hair.”

However, I recognize homeowners have a well-established expectation their “neighborhood character” will be preserved. As long as city authorities are regulating private property, I applaud their pursuit of evenhanded justice.

• Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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