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Bill to restrict public land buys would be worse in urban counties, senator said
‘It would appear they want less land to be protected’
Eastern Iowans are poised to have access to 100 more acres of public land — complete with a lush wetland, prairie grasses and mature oak and hickory trees.
But if a bill scheduled for public hearing Wednesday in the Iowa Legislature were in effect, this Washington County property may never have been donated for public use, officials said. That’s because Senate Study Bill 3134 would limit the amount of money the state and counties may pay for land and, in some cases, removes tax benefits for land donors.
“You have to wonder why they want to restrict the ability of county conservation boards to purchase lands,” said Jason Taylor, executive director of the Bur Oak Trust, an Iowa City-based not-for-profit conservation group. “It would appear they want less land to be protected and less land to be put into conservation programs.”
Tom Gross and Linda Lee donated the land near Wellman to the Trust in 2018, Taylor said. The parcel was farmed in the 1980s, but then was restored to wetlands and lowland timber.
The Washington County Conservation Board is under contract to buy the land and make it part of the English River Wildlife Area, a nearly 800-acre swathe that is home to animal species, including the threatened long-eared owl, and an important flood mitigation and water quality filtration area.
The county plans to open the area to public recreation, which could include hunting, fishing, primitive camping or hiking.
Senate Study Bill 3134, proposed by Sen. Annette Sweeney, an Alden farmer and Republican, limits the amount of money groups such as the Bur Oak Trust, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources or county conservation boards can pay to buy land to convert it to public uses that could include parks, playgrounds or museums.
The proposed purchase caps range depending on the land’s potential for farming:
- For timber and nontillable pasture, buyers can pay up to 80 percent of fair market value
- Low-quality cropland — 75 percent
- Medium-quality cropland — 70 percent
- High-quality cropland — 65 percent
Landowners who sell to the DNR or county conservation board for the capped price can’t claim the remaining value as a tax deduction, the bill states.
This isn’t the first time the Republican-led Legislature has tried to pass bills limiting the conversion of farmland to public land.
In 2019, more than 300 people showed up to oppose a bill that would have prevented public agencies from buying land or even accepting donated land unless a donor paid for upkeep. That bill also would have ended a popular tax credit for land donations.
Sen. Ken Rozenboom, R-Oskaloosa, told The Gazette at the time he supported bills to restrict public land purchases because he thinks the best use of most Iowa land is farming. There also is concern public agencies might outbid farmers.
“We're a farming state,” Rozenboom said in 2019. “Compared to states that have other natural resources, mountains and deserts, that's not who Iowa is.”
Iowa's share of land owned by federal, state and local government ranges between 1 percent and 3 percent, depending whether government buildings are counted. An analysis by the National Resources Council of Maine in the early 2000s ranked Iowa at 49th in the nation with just over 1 percent of land owned by the federal or state government.
The Gazette reached out to Rozenboom, Sweeney and Sen. Tom Shipley, R-Nodaway — all members of the Senate Natural Resources Committee — but Shipley and Rozenboom did not reply. Sweeney replied to a text that she did not have time in between meetings Tuesday to talk about the bill.
No state or local agencies or interest groups have registered in support of the bill.
Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, also on the committee, said the bill particularly hurts urban counties, where county conservation boards might be competing against developers to buy farmland.
“For a county like Linn County, the alternative to public ownership is not farming. In many cases the alternative is urban sprawl and development. This really hurts the ability in urban counties for county conservation boards to put aside land for conservation purposes, clean water and recreation.”
Taylor said conservation groups aren’t seeking to buy prime farmland because it’s too expensive.
“There were record farm prices in Iowa, land going over $20,000 per acre,” he said. “I don’t know of a case where land trusts are outbidding farmers.”
But Taylor thinks recreation is the best use of many Iowa parcels, especially those by creeks and rivers. Public land is important because few people can afford to own their own land for hiking, hunting and fishing.
“The ability to recreate outside should not be based on someone’s wealth,” he said.
A Senate Natural Resources standing committee will discuss SSB 3134 at 2 p.m. Wednesday at the State Capitol in Des Moines. The meeting also will be livestreamed.
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