Elections

Conservation bond garners overwhelming approval

County hopes vote sends message to legislators

Standing water in a wetland is shown at Squaw Creek Park in Marion on Friday, Sept. 9, 2016. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)
Standing water in a wetland is shown at Squaw Creek Park in Marion on Friday, Sept. 9, 2016. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)

Linn County residents voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to pass a $40 million conservation bond that potentially could improve land and waterways.

When the Linn County Conservation Board proposed the bond a few months ago, some residents said they were unsure how the $40 million would be used. Supervisors then set percentages for how the bond would be distributed, with 55 percent for water quality and land protection, 30 percent for parks and 15 percent for trails.

Potential projects include wetland development and protection along the Cedar River and many parks and existing natural areas in Linn County. Improvements to parks and trails also is possible.

But uncertainty seemed to subside Tuesday. All but one Prairieburg precinct reported the measure passed.

The measure passed with more than 74 percent approval — 73,899 “yes” votes out of 99,983 registered voters, far exceeding the 60 percent it needed to pass.

Such high approval was atypical among ballot measures. The other Linn County measure, to reduce the number of supervisors, passed with 51 percent approval. An Iowa City ballot measure to reduce the number of signatures needed on a petition passed with 58 approval.

Conservation resonates with voters, said Linn County Conservation Deputy Director Dennis Goemaat.

“People value their recreation and water quality in natural areas,” Goemaat said.

Deb Hennessey, 58, of Marion, said she went into the booth intending to vote “no” on the issue, but ultimately decided she wants to see waterways improve.

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Christina Wright, 45, of Marion, also had mixed feelings about the measure but voted in favor of it.

“That generally goes against my “don’t spend money you don’t have” (belief), but I believe we should spend public money toward conservation,” she said.

The Conservation Board visited community groups the past few months to explain the measure and potential projects, said Hillary Hughes, vice president of the board.

Tom Peffer, chairman of Linn County Water and Land Legacy Action that raised $76,593.30 to campaign for the measure, said the group sent out four or five mailings to about 35,000 Linn County residents, explaining the measure and proposed projects. The group also made yard signs and bought an ad on Facebook.

However, September’s flood might have inspired a higher turnout, Hughes and Goemaat said.

“It again pointed out the natural flood storage is important,” she said. “Having floodplains in a natural condition helps to reduce impact in urban areas.”

Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett agreed.

“We’re coming off the September flooding event that raised to the top of people’s minds how important watershed management is,” Corbett said. “Many people I visited with about this subject matter looked at this as water quality and watershed management.”

Goemaat said the board wants to meet with the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, Iowa Department of Natural Resources and other groups as early as next week to work on funding projects. Though he said it will take time to raise the $40 million, earlier estimates showed Linn County residents could pay $27 a year for 20 years once the bond is fully issued.

Hughes and Corbett said they hope the support for the ballot measure sends the message to legislators to fund the Iowa DNR’s Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund created in 2010 to fund DNR programs.

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“This is an affirmation vote,” Hughes said. “I think this should demonstrate to lawmakers statewide that conservation is important to citizens of Iowa.”

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