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Conserving the heart of Tiffin

Consultant presents council members with an opportunity
A placard marks 480 Roberts Ferry Rd. in Tiffin. Owner Amanda Potterfield listed the 11.13 acres, including a house, several outbuildings and inground pool, for sale. The City of Tiffin is considering buying the land for future park ground. (photo by Shianne Fisher)

TIFFIN– It could be dubbed Potterfield Park, if the City of Tiffin can procure the land in time.
At a Tiffin City Council work session Tuesday, July 18, a consultant explained a one-of-a-kind chance for the city: the acquisition of 11.13 acres for a future nature area.
“It’s pretty black and white that it should be a park,” said Sandy Steil, land planning and development consultant at Steil Consulting LLC.
Steil, a member of the Bur Oak Land Trust’s board of directors and its land acquisition committee, said she’s never seen a property so well maintained.
“And I go on a lot of properties,” she added.
The acreage, located at 480 Roberts Ferry Rd. and owned by Amanda Potterfield, went on the market July 10, listed at $890,400. It includes a 3,960-square-foot house, several outbuildings, trails and an inground pool Steil said could be easily converted into a lily pond.
“The price is way too much for what we can handle. So, that’s one problem we have to get over,” admitted Mayor Steve Berner.
Otherwise, he said he was in favor of the city acquiring the estate.
“The nature idea, I love it. It’s exactly what this is for,” he said.
And, those present determined, Potterfield would likely agree after working the property with her late husband, Joe Johnston, for nearly 40 years.
“She was always out there,” said Public Works Director Brett Mehmen. “Joe said he could develop it but that his wife would probably kill him. I remember that meeting.”
In fact, council member Peggy Upton said preserving the Johnston/Potterfield residence got her interested in city council in the first place.
“(Joe) wanted to sell part of that and I went down there as a neighbor to talk against it and he said that she would never let them cut down the oak trees on the east edge,” she shared.
Oak, walnut and aspen trees, and plenty of squirrels and chipmunks, can be found throughout the property, in addition to Potterfield’s many flower plantings.
“It’s really something,” said City Administrator Doug Boldt, whorecently explored the land in its entirety.
Steil said there are many options to consider, including making the area a dog park, adding gazebos or turning the house into a nature center.
“I don’t think that it just has to be trees and open space,” she said. “There’s a nice flat area that would make an excellent area for a little playground.”
Council member Al Havens wasn’t keen on all Steil’s ideas.
“As far as dog park goes, we’ve got a dog park,” said Havens.
He urged against making the area “any more than it is” if the city can procure it.
“I want it primitive,” he said. “This is what Tiffin was years ago. Kids can go there and say this is what it was before we became this sprawling thing we are now.”
Steil noted the city would have to worry about the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements when considering hiking trails and paths to key features, such as a bridge or pond.
“There’s a ton of great stuff we could do with that space,” Upton echoed. “I have just been dreading the day somebody was going to want to put that road through and put 12-plexes back there.”
Which has been requested, Boldt noted. “It’s been asked,” he said. “In the last year, it’s been asked three times of me.”
Both Steil and Berner argued significant engineering would be required to put anything but single-family dwellings on the lot, which consists largely of rolling hills and trees by the hundreds.
“I met with a developer who was going to buy this a year ago,” Berner shared. “He can’t get enough doors in there to pay for it. With the topography he can’t get enough buildable space.”
A developer would also have to get support from council members to rezone the acreage from single- to multi-family.
“I’m sure as heck not going to change the zoning on that,” said Upton. “I’d never vote for that.”
However, Steil said she or the realtor can’t stop someone else from buying that property and she does know at least one interested individual.
“That’s fine, but I don’t think there’s going to be a developer that buys this,” said Berner.
But, the city can’t afford it either, he reiterated.
“We don’t have a problem matching some portion of it. That’s not going to be an issue,” he said. “It’s just 800 grand is not going to happen.”
While Steil spoke with Bur Oak about buying the land, she said the organization can’t act fast enough. “It takes them years to get that kind of money,” she said.
The Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation (INHF), however, is willing and able to help out.
“This is what they do,” Steil said. “The shortest amount of time they’ve acquired a property was four days.” She added INHF’s president Joe McGovern is “100 percent on board” with the idea.
“Joe called me three times last week (asking), ‘Is it still on? Is it still on?” she said.
The INHF has protected more than 1,100 sites in 95 of Iowa’s 99 counties since 1979, totaling over 150,000 acres. The organization even gives landowners the option to preserve their land, whether they want to keep or sell.
“What Joe could do, he could put a conservation easement on the property,” Steil explained. “What this does, it devalues the property, but the cost it devalues it, she’ll get in tax benefits and tax credits.”
It would be considered a bargain sale, but Potterfield could also opt for a fair market sale and receive the full value of the property.
“If she just needs cold hard cash, (Joe) can still do it,” said Steil.
Either way, INHF needs to get the land appraised to determine whether or not it truly is worth $890,000.
“What a realtor lists it at and what it’s appraised at might be two different things,” said Steil.
She added she’s hopeful a bargain sale could reduce the price to $600,000, with some $100,000 in tax deductions and the other $200,000 in tax credits going to Potterfield. INHF can then hold the property until the City of Tiffin is able to allocate enough funding.
“Until somebody comes along with a higher bid, which hopefully that doesn’t happen,” said Steil.
She noted if the city is concerned with financing the purchase, there are plenty of grants, and an entrance fee could be considered.
“A lot of people think a park has to be free. It’s OK to charge people to go to a park,” she said.
She also said she’d be willing to help with a capital campaign to raise money for the purchase.
“I think the people that are abutting it would really be in support of you making it a park,” she added.
The support the city needs most is Potterfield’s, who was away on vacation and unable to be present at the council meeting.
Council members were hopeful she’d be in agreement– especially if the land would bear her name.
“Lots of times people want their legacy to be a contribution to the city where they’ve lived,” said Upton.
Although no official vote was taken, the council agreed to continue discussions with McGovern and Potterfield, and to consider hiring a third party to assist with grant writing down the road.