Guest Columnist

Proposed Johnson County comprehensive plan has flaws

A sign announcing an upcoming public hearing for property rezoning stands in a grassy area in August 2017. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
A sign announcing an upcoming public hearing for property rezoning stands in a grassy area in August 2017. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

While attending the League of Women Voters forum for Johnson County supervisor candidates I kept hearing the two incumbents express concerns about “sprawl” and “managing growth.” Phrases like “managing growth” and “preventing sprawl” should be examined more closely. There are many property owners in the North Corridor whose land may sell for $6,000 per acre for mediocre farm ground but double that for 10- to 20-acre farms with a personal residence. For many older land owners these “managed growth” policies will cost them half of their family fortune. That is tough to take if you have spent the last 40 years eking out a living on an 80-acre cattle farm.

We can still protect the environmental integrity along the Iowa River without eviscerating the wealth of Johnson County landowners. The proposed comprehensive plan precludes the development of 10-acre parcels for single family residences and small truck farms that could potentially support the local-foods movement. I don’t think 10-acre parcels represent a significant burden on county infrastructure nor do they compromise our ability to preserve open space.

Enhancing open space is a premium concern in the proposed plan. Between the federal lands around the reservoir, the public lands owned by the university and the extensive holding of Bur Oak and the Conservation Commission, we do not suffer from a lack of public lands in the North Corridor. If the open space is privately owned, those owners are far more likely to police the multi flora rose and other invasives that customarily plague public open space.

So let’s be clear; everything that has ever developed in the North Corridor has been planned for several generations. Growth has been focused in that area because while heavily wooded land with significant slope is lousy farmland, it is well-suited for development with personal residences on relatively large parcels of 5 acres or more. This is not the uncontrolled spread of urban development into neighboring regions — it is thoughtful planning that balances the needs and resources of the county and its landowners.

It would be one thing if the proposed comprehensive plan was a collaborative effort between the supervisors and the 20-member Comprehensive Review Committee, which threatened to resign en masse since the supervisors ignored its recommendations.

I would feel some confidence in the plan if the county Planning and Zoning Commission didn’t feel the need to attach a 25-point amendment of things that need fixing. But the fix was in and the incumbent supervisors are calling the shots.

So here is how you choke off any new construction in the North Corridor:

First, stipulate that any new construction must have access to appropriate fire control. Let’s get real — if you are in the country, there is limited access to a fire department. No fire department means no new construction.

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Second, require that access lanes be limited to 1,000 feet to enable timely access for emergency vehicles. Never mind the prior 10 miles it takes to get there. If a property owner is willing to maintain an extended drive, let them.

Third, be sure to include stormwater management requirements, a thorough environmental survey and bring in the state archaeologists. By the way, for the 40-acre farmstead split which is state controlled, none of that is required. Isn’t there some middle ground to be explored here?

Fourth, if the three points above don’t kill construction, require a clustered development pattern of 1-acre lots. Hint: People don’t move to the North Corridor for a 1-acre lot.

This is not “managed growth” and it is not a thoughtful way of protecting open space. Put simply, it institutionalizes NIMBYism where the backyard is all of Johnson County.

• Casey Cook of Iowa City is a local appraiser who has studied development patterns in Johnson County for over 30 years, has a master’s degree in urban planning from the University of Iowa and served on the Iowa City Planning and Zoning Commission.

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