Government

Linn County leaders envision growing housing with crops at Dows Farm Agri-Community

Neighbors still have questions about developing county-owned Dows Farm

Charles Abraham stands Monday at the edge of his property and across the street from land where the Dows Farm Agri-Community is being planned. He, like some of the neighbors, have questions about the viability of a project that may include affordable housing units being miles away from stores and services. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Charles Abraham stands Monday at the edge of his property and across the street from land where the Dows Farm Agri-Community is being planned. He, like some of the neighbors, have questions about the viability of a project that may include affordable housing units being miles away from stores and services. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Imagine, as Linn County project leaders do, a housing community that features a sustainable farm as its key amenity.

The Dows Farm Agri-Community is planned as a 179-acre development with a working farm, trail connections and greenways among various housing units.

“Virtually every residential unit is going to have access to open space, whether it’s small play spaces or connections that take them to the conservation space. So there are really a lot of fingers of green space and connections throughout the entire project,” said Les Beck, Linn County government’s director of planning and development.

Plans scaled back from the initial concept a year ago call for 251 units of housing of various types and price points, and commercial space.

Only about 25 percent of the property will be developed under the current plan, with the remainder being either for conservation or agriculture space.

“We think that’s a good number of dwelling units that responds to the site conditions, provides flexibility in terms of the marketplace, and works in terms of traffic as well — it doesn’t put a burden on the existing roadway system,” said Dennis Reynolds, with Reynolds Urban Design, which designed the project. “The number of growing units will probably stay the same, but the mix of product types with it may shift depending on what the what the marketplace tells us.”

Leaders will present the plan to the public during an open house from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Thursday at A Touch of Class Banquet & Convention Center, 5977 Mount Vernon Road SE.

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The central amenity to the development is the sustainable farm, Beck said. Although it’s yet undecided how the farm would be run or by whom, the idea is that residents will have an opportunity to be involved with farm activities if they want.

Beck said the county also imagines one of the commercial options being a farm-to-table restaurant to serve produce or meat from the farm.

“So instead of saying, ‘I live on a golf course and I look out on the ninth green,’ you say ‘I live on the farm, and I look out on the kale field,’ or ‘I look down on the pasture with some animals,’” Reynolds said. “So it’s a new way of thinking about farms that’s really exciting.”

Linn County won’t serve as the developer for the project. Rather, Reynolds will put out a request for proposals to developers and outline requirements for them. The winning developer will purchase the property from the county. He hopes to have a developer on board by fall or early winter.

The Dows Farm, on the west side of Highway 13 and bordered by Mount Vernon Road, Dows Road and the Squaw Creek residential development, first was purchased by the county in 2016. The farm is one of two parcels purchased at the time totaling 485 acres for $7.2 million. The other 306 acres was bought to expand Squaw Creek Park.

“This (Dows) piece was really not the primary target. My understanding is that the board had always intended that it would sell this piece for development purposes. The county’s long-range plan targets this area for future urban development,” Beck said.

The plan that project leaders will present Thursday is the second iteration. Last year, the county held a similar open house with a similar proposal, but one that called for 351 housing units — or 100 more.

After hearing from neighbors concerned about traffic volume with that many units, some of the housing units were removed from the plans.

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“We’ve made some rather significant design changes between the open house from April of 2018 to now. And those changes have been in response to the concerns that we’ve had that were expressed by people who live in the area,” Beck said, adding he hopes to get more feedback from neighbors Thursday. “We think that we’re in a pretty good place right now, designwise.”

Still, neighbors have other questions about the viability of the project and if it will include affordable housing, among other concerns.

Pat Baird, who lives near the proposed development on Dows Road, said he believed at first the county’s purchase was about conservation. He offered to buy the northern portion of the Dows land with the intention of donating an easement for a trail, before he saw the development plans.

“I think we all expected that someday there would be some commercial development along Mount Vernon Road and that’s fine,” Baird said. “That offer is still outstanding. I think since then, though, this urban development has really taken over and the idea of preservation clearly doesn’t seem to be the priority at least I thought it was when the county first bought the land.”

After seeing the plan, Baird said he has concerns about the viability of the project and hopes to hear why county staff think it would work near Cedar Rapids.

Neighbors like Baird and Charles Abraham, who lives and owns a veterinary clinic on Dows Road, have concerns over the cost of housing.

Beck said while the development will provide a range of housing prices, there are no plans specifically for subsidies like Section 8 or housing choice vouchers.

Project leaders are discussing including in the development agreement something on affordable housing, where housing costs total no more than 30 percent of a renter or buyer’s gross income.

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Baird said he had concerns that if homeowners association fees are added to maintain the farm, the housing costs are no longer so affordable.

Abraham said he didn’t think it makes sense to establish such affordable housing in an area far way from stores and services.

“To come out here, 8 miles from all that stuff and put a development like this up ... just does not make sense to any of us,” Abraham said, adding he plans to attend the open house Thursday. “If (the county) would be doing it in town somewhere, no one would be arguing with it because we know that — we know we need it. But to bring it out here?”

l Comments: (319) 339-3172; maddy.arnold@thegazette.com

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