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Another controversial rezoning for Newport Road

Supervisors approve change to residential for Jeff and Judy Stevens

IOWA CITY– The Johnson County Board of Supervisors just can’t alleviate the rough ride that comes with Newport Road.
At its April 9 meeting, the board approved an application from Jeff and Judy Stevens to rezone 14.3 acres of their Newport Road farm from agricultural to residential, a request the Johnson County Planning and Zoning (P&Z) Commission denied in a 4-1 vote on March 9. Initially the couple asked to rezone the property along with a concept plan indicating the rezoning would allow them to subdivide the property and build up to four homes in the future. The P&Z Commission declined to recommend its approval, with commissioners Kathy Swenka, Julie VanDyke and Brianna Wills stating they wanted more current traffic counts for Newport Road (according to the recorded minutes) and commissioner Robert Conrad wanting to see the LESA scores– the evaluation of the property’s suitability as farmland. Commissioner Terry Dahms voted in favor of the application.
But rezoning applications still come before the Board of Supervisors, which has its own discretion in approving or denying them, after holding the required public hearings.
In the supervisor’s meeting last Wednesday, Newport Road residents offered the same arguments against the rezoning heard by the P&Z: that more houses bring additional traffic to the already busy road; that the county’s Land Use Plan advocates for preserving farm ground; that compacted soil on the site creates the potential for storm water and septic problems; and that allowing more residential development on the rural roadway constitutes urban sprawl, not infill development, and damages the pastoral nature of the area.
Because the property lies in the North Corridor area, designated in the county Land Use Plan as the preferred area for growth and development, Planning and Zoning Assistant Planner Josh Brusard said the department supported the rezoning request.
“Staff feels this property is primarily used for residential purposes, and this request would bring the use of the property and the zoning classification into compliance,” Brusard said. However, he added, there are two horses and about seven acres currently used to grow hay.
As for traffic concerns, Brusard said the Iowa Department Of Transportation’s preliminary traffic count data taken in 2014 showed that Newport Road had an Average Daily Traffic (ADT) count of 1,047 vehicles per day (VPD) near its intersection with Prairie du Chien, and 994 VPD on the portion of road near its intersection with Sugar Bottom Road. Johnson County has an ordinance disallowing future development on roads with an ADT count of 2,000 or greater unless the road is already on the county’s 5-year road construction plan, which Newport Road is not. Further, the Road Performance Standards aren’t part of a rezoning application, Brusard noted. They don’t come into play until the subdivision process.
But Newport neighbors argue that the traffic data is too important not to consider now. Tom Carsner, of Iowa City, said Newport Road is already heavily used “especially in summertime, with recreational areas and four events centers. The logic goes that if there is no political will to upgrade or improve Newport Road, why keep adding more traffic to it?” Carsner asked. “That’s the reason the P&Z Commission voted this down four-to-one. They know. They’ve seen it.”
Jim Glasgow, of Iowa City, said placing more septic systems on the property with its clay soil was a potential hazard for the environment.
“This property is in the watershed of two tributaries to the Iowa River, so the sewage systems will affect both of those streams. The same applies with the well,” Glasgow said.
Further, the Stevenses had initially proposed four lots and resubmitted a concept plan showing two instead.
“We just keep kicking the can down the road and say we’ll deal with everything in the next phase. I think at this point this rezoning should be denied until you know what is really going to happen,” Glassgow added.
Public Health Department Environmental Health Specialist Dan Kramer told the board that he and an engineer had visited the site, and while conventional septic systems would not support four new homes, there were possible alternative types of systems that could service that level of development.
“If this proposed site goes forward, the engineer would have to go back out to identify what kind of system would work. I could certainly support the two lots,” Kramer said.
Newport Road farmer Jim Sedlacek argued for the preservation of farm and agricultural land as a precious resource.
“We’re losing about an acre a minute of farmland,” Sedlacek said. “I know that doesn’t seem like nothing, but it adds up. Countless people come out there and they like the road the way it is. I don’t understand why people want to come out and destroy what is out there.”
Finally, adjacent property owner Laurie Tulchin said, that while the Stevenses had been good neighbors, she hoped the board would take the long view on Newport Road.
“People love it out there. There are 13 houses, all single homes on large acreages. There are no subdivisions out there. It’s a really special place,” said Tulchin, noting the closest existing services are four miles in either direction. “We all want the same thing for the unique areas we have left. We don’t want to look like North Liberty.”
As for this specific property, Tulchin asked the supervisors to just say no.
“Any time anybody wants to rezone anything, you say ‘okay.’ If you would just simply say ‘no, that this is so far out in the growth area, and it does not fit our long term vision of what we want for Newport, Sugar Bottom (Road) and the recreational areas we have left.’”
But applicant Judy Stevens said the board’s charge was only to consider the rezoning request, and offered only one other remark.
“I gasp when Laurie Tulchin said we were good neighbors when all she did was badmouth us (since we made this application),” Judy said.
Also speaking in support of the application was Newport Road resident Sharon Dooley, who was granted rezoning of 90.8 acres of her farm property to rural cluster classification for a future residential subdivision in 2013.
“They say they want farms, but ever since I’ve been rezoned I’ve been tormented and harassed by my neighbors,” Dooley said, referring to those opposing the application. “Most of their homes are on (former) farmland. They want to be there but they don’t want anyone else to live there, and that’s not fair.”
Dooley closed with a plea to the supervisors.
“Please be rational; don’t pay attention to the drama,” she said.
But the supervisors did pay at least a little attention to drama; supervisor Janelle Rettig asked audience members to refrain from laughing out loud and disrupting other people’s remarks, and later, challenged fellow supervisor Mike Carberry’s consistency in voting on zoning applications.
Carberry stated during discussion that he did believe the plan to build more homes on the Stevens’ property constituted sprawl.
“A year ago the county said they only wanted growth in rural clusters, and I don’t see that. I think we need infill development, which is growing taller and from the city limits outward. If we start saying ‘no’ to some of these developments, we’ll start getting sequential development. I would like to see us shrink up the growth area so we start growing in the fringe areas,” said Carberry. “I’m drawing a line in the sand. I don’t like this proposal.”
Rettig countered by asking why Carberry voted on March 10 in favor of a rezoning application that changed 9.83 acres of agriculture land to residential use.
“You didn’t say a word, you voted for it, you didn’t talk about sprawl,” Rettig said. “The public has a right to ask what’s the difference? The people expect the board of supervisors to create good rules, constantly revise them, but then treat applicants fairly and consistently after that, and not change our vote based on who we know or who contributed to our campaigns.”
Supervisor Rod Sullivan told Carberry that development in the two-mile fringe areas around cities is not under the board’s purview, but the cities’ responsibility.
“It’s a legitimate opinion to have, but that’s not our deal. We don’t handle those applications,” Sullivan said. “Anything outside that two-mile radius is the only time we consider rezoning, and that’s the area in which I’ve tried to be consistent in; where (development) is appropriate and where it’s not.”
With supervisor Terrence Neuzil absent, the deciding vote came from supervisor Pat Harney, who said he was not in favor of the original four-lot subdivision, but because the Stevenses had resubmitted a scaled-down concept plan with two houses, he would support it.
The first consideration of the rezoning passed 3-1, with Carberry casting the dissenting vote.
Any development on the property is now subject to the platting process, which starts with an application submitted to the county’s planning department. Applications eventually move to the Planning & Zoning Commission, which will make a formal recommendation to the Board of Supervisors.