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Court decision does not further annexation resolution for Coralville, North Liberty

NORTH LIBERTY– The state’s City Development Board, in its regular meeting Wednesday, Dec. 16, considered the latest ruling in the competing Coralville and North Liberty annexation proposals, now disputed for over three years.
And it doesn’t look as if a resolution will be forthcoming soon.
Last month, the Iowa Court of Appeals upheld a district court decision that, since Coralville did not give adjacent property owners adequate notice of the intended annexation of 386.9 acres near the east edge of North Liberty, Coralville’s annexation application was void and should not have come before the City Development Board. The board is a governor-appointed entity that approves or denies annexation applications for municipalities. North Liberty also filed an annexation application including some of the same property, after rural neighbors came forth seeking voluntary annexation into North Liberty and opposing Coralville’s annexation proposal with a lawsuit.
The City Development Board had tabled the competing annexations until the courts gave a final ruling, which was handed down Nov. 25. However, during the board’s informal discussion last Wednesday, there was no talk of placing the annexation applications back on the table for formal consideration.
Instead, the board heard a staff report from City Development Board Administrator Steve McCann, as well as legal counsel Matthew Oetker from the Iowa Department of Justice, about how the court’s ruling seems to conflict with the state’s current guidelines for considering 100 percent voluntary annexation applications.
The voluntary nature of the annexation applications played a key role in the discussion.
When Coralville first applied for annexation of the area known as the Scanlon Farm, the city only wanted the Scanlon’s property and enough of North Liberty Road to get there. Because the Scanlon property was the only property involved, it was considered a 100 percent voluntary annexation. But residents who live along North Liberty Road, concerned about traffic congestion and travel safety, disagreed with what they considered a “shoestring” annexation. They filed a petition against the city of Coralville, and in October, 2006, the district court ruled in favor of the neighbors, concluding their properties were indeed adjacent to the proposed annexed portions of North Liberty Road, and thus should have been given proper notice of Coralville’s intent.
The litigation, and Coralville’s subsequent filings for appeal, put the case on hold for three years.
Coralville had until Dec. 15 to appeal the Supreme Court’s summary judgment. As of that date, no appeal had been filed. City Administrator Kelly Hayworth did not return phone messages or emails prior to this publication’s deadline asking whether Coralville would attempt any further legal proceedings in the case.
The court’s final decision– that Coralville had not given proper notice and therefore had no authority to approve the annexation application before the City Development Board– muddied the waters of typical procedures in deciding annexation cases, said the board’s legal counsel, Matthew Oetker, from the Iowa Department of Justice.
“I don’t think the court engaged in an in-depth analysis on the notice, and the other 80/20 requirements, in a 100 percent voluntary situation,” Oetker told the board. “I read the decision as suggesting that the city, for all intents and purposes, could see that these landowners were adjoining and entitled to notices, which is not consistent with this board’s interpretation of a purely 100 percent voluntary (annexation).”
Oetker said his office would recommend the board follow the court’s requirements as upheld by the decision, and the best way to do so would be to rewrite a portion of Iowa Code Chapter 368 relating to the City Development Board’s rules in considering voluntary annexations.
McCann concurred.
“We may have to change the way we’ve been doing business on 100 percent voluntaries, as far as the notices and processes that are required for them to come to us,” McCann said.
In the face of rewriting the state code, which Oetker described as “ugly,” and “a little bit like Frankenstein, with bits and pieces added in,” McCann agreed to contact the board’s legislative liaison for direction. Meanwhile, rather than bring the annexation applications back to their agenda, the board agreed to invite representatives from both cities to the board’s next meeting, scheduled to be held in Fairfield, Iowa, on Feb. 17.
“We thought it would be appropriate to ask the parties involved what their suggestions are as to how to consider the proposals,” McCann told the board. “I know that the two cities are trying to work on some resolution of the dispute between them, so it may work out so we don’t have to take them up again in their current form.”
North Liberty City Administrator Ryan Heiar later agreed that the “two cities regularly work together on projects, day-to-day activities, and issues of mutual benefit or concern, including the annexation case,” characterizing the discussions between Coralville and North Liberty over the dispute and possible solutions as “exploratory and informal, at different levels.” Aside from that, Heiar said, North Liberty has also been mostly waiting for the court system to decide the case against Coralville.
“Importantly, utility plans have been developed, but because of the uncertainty of the outcome, large amounts of staff time and energy have not been devoted to plan development,” for the area, Heiar added.
Heiar said North Liberty representatives will attend the February meeting, and “any other meetings when substantive discussion or action on the pending applications is on the CDB agenda,” but was unsure what recommendations they might make.
“Between now and then,” said Heiar, “we will continue to explore all the options and be developing the city’s position as to where to go from here.”