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Are Linn, Johnson counties losing farmland to rezoning?

Not as much as you might think

Bluebird Drive SW ends at undeveloped farmland in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, July 17, 2019. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Bluebird Drive SW ends at undeveloped farmland in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, July 17, 2019. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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The amount of farmland that’s been put to other uses in the past decade is not as large as it might seem from just a casual drive around the Corridor.

“We do not see a lot of rezoning activity in the unincorporated area of Linn County,” said Les Beck, director of Linn County Planning and Development. “We see a lot of older farmstead sites that are being severed from the surrounding farmland.

“That really does not indicate conversion of farmland because that’s land that already has a house and outbuildings on it. It was not in agricultural use to begin with.”

In Linn County, for example, has more than 145 acres of farmland was rezoned for urban use between 2010 and 2019. Of that, about 135 acres were rezoned residential, more than 7 acres commercial and almost two and a half acres industrial, according to Linn County Planning and Development.

All told, Linn County has some 324,500 acres of farmland, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

About 3,919 acres of the county’s farmland were annexed by cities between 2010 and 2019.

“That does not mean that all those acres have been taken out of agricultural production,” Beck added. “I think the majority of land annexation in Linn County has been due to the growth of cities as opposed to development in rural areas.”

Marion, for example, annexed 1,065 acres in the past decade, followed by Cedar Rapids with almost 767 acres, Fairfax with 689 acres, Springville with 546 acres and Hiawatha with 341 acres.

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Beck said the pace of development in the unincorporated areas of Linn County slowed down in recent years.

“Obviously market economics has a lot to do with it, but I also feel that the county put in place a solid growth management system in the early 2000s that has helped with this,” he said. “The county made a deliberate decision to try to grow development from the inside out and put most development in the hands of the cities where services could be provided.”

Beck said taking that approach comes with some trade-offs.

“You may be trading some high value agricultural land as development expands at the fringes of cities,” he said. “At the same time, it reduces leapfrog development and the cost of extending services to outlying areas.”

Fast-growing County

In Johnson County, slightly almost 870 acres were rezoned residential, commercial or industrial from 2009 to 2018. The statistics, provided in annual reports from Johnson County Planning, Development and Sustainability, show the majority of the rezoning was for residential use.

Johnson County has a total of 304,329 acres of farmland, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service.

Josh Busard, director of Johnson County Planning, Development and Sustainability, said the county’s land use policy has done an excellent job preserving agricultural land.

“If you take a step back and look at the overall balance of agricultural land in Johnson County, you are going to see that we have been able to preserve an amazing amount of agricultural land as opposed to other counties,” Busard said. “We have done a great job of reducing and preventing urban sprawl.

“We also have done a good job of protecting environmentally sensitive areas.”

Johnson County is one of the fastest-growing counties in Iowa, Busard noted, citing North Liberty and Tiffin in particular.

The rezoning of farmland to urban uses in Cedar Rapids has been in the news recently with the announcement of the 140-acre American Prairie project near Eastern Iowa Airport.

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The $20 million development, planned for land south of Wright Brothers Boulevard SW and east of Earhart Lane, could take seven to 10 years to complete. It would include 35 acres of 120 single-family homes, 70 acres of duplexes, about 4 acres of fourplexes, 11 acres of multifamily structures and almost 5 acres of commercial space.

The Cedar Rapids City Council is expected to take a final vote on rezoning for the American Prairie project this year.

Cedar Rapids has rezoned 512 acres of farmland for urban uses since 2013, according to the Cedar Rapids Community Development Department. The breakout is just above 231 acres residential, 156 mixed use and 124 industrial.

Caleb Mason, a Cedar Rapids economic development analyst, said the city has been encouraging infill development, which saves the city the cost of extending sewer and water service.

“Within our municipal boundaries, we have a lot of land that can be developed without having to extend our footprint,” Mason said.

Pockets

In the aftermath of the 2008 flood, Cedar Valley Habitat for Humanity constructed single-family homes on previously undeveloped land off Rogers Road SW. Developers also have taken advantage of land off 33rd Avenue SW at 18th Street SW and north of Wilson Avenue SW to build new single-family homes.

Pockets of undeveloped land have sprouted new single-family homes and condominiums off 37th Avenue SW west of Edgewood Road SW and at the end of West Post Road SW where it ends north of Highway 30.

Skogman Homes is building out land rezoned years ago for single-family homes off First Avenue SW in Stoney Point. Additional lots recently became available when Underwood Avenue SW was extended.

Industrial development and rezoning of farmland after the 2008 flood came in the form of a new Diamond V Mills headquarters and manufacturing plant at 2525 60th Ave. SW. The company, acquired by Cargill in January 2018, has continued to expand its plant in response to market conditions.

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Diamond V’s move was the first of a number of new industrial facilities built on what had been farmland south of Highway 30.

L.L. Pelling constructed a new asphalt plant in 2012 on what had been 40 acres of farmland on 60th Avenue SW east of Edgewood Road SW. The plant, which opened in September 2013, replaced an older, smaller facility on J Street SW. And ReConserve Iowa, which processes grain-based food waste into registered ingredients for livestock feed, constructed a 61,000-square-foot plant in 2017 on land east of Edgewood Road SW and south of 60th Avenue SW. The plant replaced a facility in Anamosa that was destroyed by fire in 2015.

Agricultural land owned by Eastern Iowa Airport is intended to be developed as part of the Cedar Rapids Land and Air Super Park. Until that occurs, the airport will continue to grow corn or soybeans on the 488 acres of farmland to generate annual revenue.

Mason said there are parcels of land throughout Cedar Rapids that were rezoned for urban uses in past years, but a portion continues to be used for agricultural production. The land is taxed at the higher rate for the existing zoning.

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