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Staff Columnist

Can only developers benefit the community?

Amber Oldfield brings a young raccoon out of its enclosure at Oldfield's northeast Cedar Rapids home on Monday, July 22, 2019. Oldfield has lived in this home for 10 years and is a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. The three raccoons Oldfield is currently rehabilitating live together, to increase the chance of a successful release. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Amber Oldfield brings a young raccoon out of its enclosure at Oldfield's northeast Cedar Rapids home on Monday, July 22, 2019. Oldfield has lived in this home for 10 years and is a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. The three raccoons Oldfield is currently rehabilitating live together, to increase the chance of a successful release. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

Let’s talk about “community benefit.”

When a developer comes to Cedar Rapids with an eye-catching project — mixed uses, housing, retail, pools, balconies, courtyards, lots of glass and stone and maybe steakhouses — the city of Cedar Rapids may label it as a “community benefit.” That means the city can go above and beyond its standard tax breaks to make the project happen.

A normal five or 10-year property tax break can turn into a 15 or 20-year break. Three times this year large development projects have received the “community benefit” seal of approval. The latest was a couple of weeks ago, when the City Council moved ahead with a $4.4 million, 16-year tax break for a $30 million development in New Bohemia.

Why bend over backward? Why be so generous? Because of the “community benefit.”

But then you have Amber Oldfield, who is not a developer. She rescues and rehabilitates sick and injured animals at her home on the northeast side. Maybe you read B.A. Morelli’s story about her last Friday.

In May, Oldfield called the police because some kids were messing with her animal enclosures. That put her on the city’s radar, and it turns out her rehabilitation operation runs afoul of zoning rules. It’s important to note nobody complained about Oldfield’s animals.

Oldfield, who is licensed by the state, has been rescuing and helping animals for 16 years. She cares for about 300 animals each year, nurses them to health and returns them to the wild. Clearly, judging by the numbers, her services are needed in Cedar Rapids.

So it would seem obvious that Oldfield is providing a community benefit. And yet, the city isn’t bending over backward to help her work continue.

Instead, the city says she needs to stop rehabilitating animals on her property or move to a part of the city where zoning allows her work. Already displaced by the 2008 flood, Oldfield doesn’t want to be pushed out again. But the city has refused her request for a variance.

Did I mention no one complained?

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“I am scared,” Oldfield told Morelli. “I’m scared at the fact someone can say we can’t work with you no matter how much time you spend talking and hearing the other side. So I have to uproot my home again. That’s a lot to take in.”

Maybe, if Oldfield can find some investors to transform her home and animal enclosures into a large, mixed use development, maybe with a rooftop restaurant, the city might be willing to adjust its normal procedures a bit to help her out. That’s a long shot.

Instead, we’re supposed to be grateful that the city isn’t making her move immediately. So generous.

I say if Oldfield’s neighbors don’t object to her caring for injured animals in their neighborhood, why should the city even be involved? And what kind of message does it send when calling the police for help leads to a mess like this? Surely there is a better solution.

One big gripe I hear often in this town is city government cares more about big business and big developers than about people. It’s hard to argue when you come across stories like this.

Who benefits from this city decision? Not the community.

l Comments: (319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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