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It’s wait and see for farmers

P&Z makes 16 recommendations, supervisors set Dec. 5 for public hearing

IOWA CITY– The Johnson County Board of Supervisors will hold a public hearing on Thursday, Dec. 5, regarding the Unified Development Ordinance (UDO), a document which codifies the Comprehensive Land Use Plan the Supervisors approved in 2018. Work began on the UDO soon after with over 1,000 man-hours spent by the county’s Planning, Development, and Sustainability department (PDS) crafting it.
“PDS staff started from current ordinance, then reorganized content, removed some regulations, modified or added others,” said PDS Director Josh Busard at a Sept. 9 public hearing conducted by the Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z). “Then we clarified and codified long-standing administrative interpretations.” Between July and September, 17 P&Z public meetings were held along with 19 board of supervisor public meetings, Busard said, and P&Z reviewed the content before the Supervisors. “Content drafted based on P&Z, and the board’s direction, and every piece of content has been subject to review in at least three different public meetings over the past 14 months,” he added.
The UDO will set the zoning code, regulations for subdivisions, and the building code regulating development and land use in the unincorporated areas of Johnson County. Also included are regulations for soil and water conservation, floodplain development and renewable energy production.
According to the PDS website, “The updated ordinance aims to balance growth with preservation of agricultural and environmentally sensitive areas, provide opportunities for local food and agri-tourism, and protect public health, safety and welfare.”
However, the agricultural community saw the UDO as an attempt to regulate agriculture in direct conflict with state code, particularly with proposed permitting requirements and qualifying for agricultural exemption, as well as challenges for those wishing to start a career in agriculture. “Agricultural exemption,” according to state code, means that land, farmhouses, and other farm building buildings and uses that are primarily adapted for agricultural purposes are exempt from all zoning code, building code, and subdivision regulations while used for agricultural purposes.
In response to concerns from the public, input from P&Z, observations by PDS staff, and others such as the Office of the State Archaeologist, a list of 16 recommended changes was compiled.
“Some are as simple as, here’s a definition that cross-references another definition, that doesn’t exist. Just delete that cross-reference. And some are as complex as one from the OSA,” Busard told the Supervisors during a Wednesday, Nov. 13 work session. “Ten or 12 of them,” he said, were “Add one supplemental condition, or change one allowed usage.”
P&Z voted unanimously to approve the UDO, with all 16 recommended changes at its monthly meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 12, after continuing a public hearing that was carried over from September. The move sends the document to the supervisors, who will make the final determination of whether to adopt the changes or not. During development of the Comprehensive Plan, the supervisors rejected some of P&Z’s recommendations, and P&Z Commissioners expressed their concerns of a repeat with the UDO.
“We’ve been down this road before,” said Commissioner Terry Dahms. “We made a number of suggestions, and in my mind, I think they were important suggestions, and they were ignored. So I’m not sure where we are here. We make these suggestions, and the supervisors can ignore all of it, or some of it. That’s a concern. We’ve been down this road before. It didn’t work out so well last time. So, what’s going to happen this time?”
Commissioner Christine Rohert said the commission has put forth its best efforts with the recommendations, and added “Hopefully the supervisors have listened to the public as well for changes that should be made.”
“On P&Z, we are focused on what is the best use for the land resources we have in Johnson County,” Dahms said. “I think putting this to the board of supervisors, it becomes political. When it becomes political, then we don’t know what they might do. Certainly we’ve seen that before, over and over again. And once it gets to the board of supervisors, it doesn’t matter what really is good land use planning. It becomes what is politically acceptable. That’s what those decisions are based on.”
Commission Chairwoman Kathy Swenka said she thinks the supervisors are listening, “Because this is no longer just about the farmers in the rural areas on 40-acres plus. This involves everybody. I hope they listen.”
Commissioner Mike Parker had a more positive outlook on the UDO development process in comparison to the comprehensive plan. “What a difference this has been. I think we have to acknowledge that this process has been 10,000-times better.” He noted during P&Z’s public hearings, “The place has been packed. That shows how important this is to people in Johnson County.” Looking at the 300-page document, Parker said maybe 98 percent of the county’s population won’t even know it exists. “They have no idea we spent all this time trying to decide what’s best. But there’s about 2 percent that this will impact their lives in a major way. That’s the farmers. Those are the people that have come here and given us their opinion. Every single one of them have been concerned about what was in it originally. This final product is astronomically different. The people I’ve talked to their biggest concerns, there’s lines through.” Parker added, “Farming is hard. It is hard, hard, hard work on their easy days. Their easy days are hard, and we should do everything we can to make their lives easier, not harder. What was in this originally, made it harder.” Parker shared Dahm’s fears that the supervisors could put back everything P&Z is recommending be taken out, and driving the farmers’ fears.
“That is the reality,” Parker said.
“What we did, whether the supervisors put things back in or not, is we gave those rural residents a voice, and a platform to stand on,” Swenka said. “So our consciences are clear. If the supervisors choose to undo that, this is on them, and only them. But we tried to do what’s best for our rural residents, which are the majority of the people trying to feed our community.”
The board of supervisors will hold a public hearing on the proposed Unified Development Ordinance at 9 a.m. Thursday, Dec. 5, in Rooms 203 B-C of the Health and Human Services Building located at 855 S. Dubuque St. in Iowa City.
As an ordinance, a public hearing and three considerations (votes) are required for enacting the UDO. The supervisors debated holding one, or two public hearings during their Nov. 13 work session.
“In the past, the board has chosen to do one night meeting and one day meeting for the public hearing to try to get a wide a range of comment as possible,” Nate Mueller, Assistant Director for PDS told the supervisors, adding they could be looking at a four-week timeline from public hearing to final adoption depending on the number of hearings, and how they choose to handle the three votes.
“The earliest you could do a meeting, assuming you want to stay with your Thursday meetings, would be Dec. 5. The next week, Dec. 12 would be the night meeting,” Mueller said, noting it would be the board’s discretion, but added he felt a discussion earlier this fall was leading toward two. But, “It’s not a requirement by code.”
Lisa Green-Douglass, the chair of the Supervisors, called it “one of those damned if you do, damned if you don’t type of things when we go to schedule things.” She acknowledged the agricultural community has been the most vocal throughout the development process. “I realize a lot of the comment will be coming from the agricultural community, and in my mind, part of the reason why we did the public input sessions was to try to accommodate all of the different opportunities for people to have some input. But, we got some flak for that, because it’s harvest time. So, you’re going to be at harvest time. You’re going to be at planting time. There’s going to be something. So I would like for us to discuss and explore… we’re out of harvest now, well, almost. They’re almost done. But certainly by mid-December, the harvest should be done.” Green-Douglass added, “I don’t know if it would be beneficial to have two public hearings.”
Supervisor Janelle Rettig said, “We’ve tried to keep these big ordinances in the night meeting because in theory more people can attend.” Rettig also advocated for imposing a ground rule that, “You can’t speak again until everybody else has spoken. At some point, you’ve heard all of the arguments, and you’re just repeating everything.”
“We’re at 150 hours of public meetings since this process started,” Supervisor Rod Sullivan said. “I hope Lisa (Green-Douglass) will remind folks that there’s been 150 hours of public meetings where people could’ve gone in and asked any question they wanted to ask, or make any comment they wanted to make. There will absolutely be these people who (will say) ‘Oh, you’re trying to squeeze this through.’ We know that’ll happen. But I’d like to at least, before they start in on that line of argument, give ‘em the facts.”
The supervisors agreed by consensus to open the public hearing on Dec. 5 with the provision it could be continued on Thursday, Dec. 12, at the board’s discretion. The first vote can occur after the hearing is closed, with an eye toward adoption before the end of the year.
“We’ve really, really dragged this out, and I don’t mean that as any kind of condemnation of the work you’ve put into this by any means, it’s just that it’s gone on long enough, and we’ve given ample opportunity for public input, and this is getting more, which I’m happy to receive, but then we need to get on it. I’m ready to wrap it up by the 26th,” Green-Douglass said.

PULL QUOTES:
“We make these suggestions, and the supervisors can ignore all of it, or some of it. That’s a concern. We’ve been down this road before. It didn’t work out so well last time. So, what’s going to happen this time?” – Terry Dahms, P&Z Commissioner

“This is no longer just about the farmers in the rural areas on 40-acres plus. This involves everybody. I hope they (Johnson County Board of Supervisors) listen.” – Kathy Swenka, P&Z Commission Chairwoman

“Farming is hard. It is hard, hard, hard work on their easy days. Their easy days are hard, and we should do everything we can to make their lives easier, not harder.” - Mike Parker, P&Z Commissioner

“What we did, whether the Supervisors put things back in or not, is we gave those rural residents a voice, and a platform to stand on. So our consciences are clear. If the Supervisors choose to undo that, this is on them, and only them.” - Kathy Swenka, P&Z Commission Chairwoman

“There will absolutely be these people who (will say) ‘Oh, you’re trying to squeeze this through.’ We know that’ll happen. But I’d like to at least, before they start in on that line of argument, give ‘em the facts.” – Rod Sullivan, County Supervisor