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Moratorium misgivings

NORTH LIBERTY– A proposed annexation moratorium between North Liberty and Coralville will not serve to freeze land annexation as effectively as it will freeze out residents, some say.
Historically, that’s how members of Citizens for Sensible Development (CSD), a group of residents who live in the currently unincorporated area between the two growing communities, have felt in their efforts to be heard: frozen out of the conversation.
That nobody from either city has contacted CSD representatives to seek input on the agreement does seem a bit paradoxical; it was, after all, the action of the CSD that set in motion a chain of events that has taken five years to play out: the 2006 court petition that stopped Coralville from annexing nearly 387 acres of Scanlon farmland for development; three competing annexation requests that a state board didn’t know what to do with; an unofficial map that turned out to be much ado about nothing; and finally, a brand new annexation agreement that took more than three months, two city administrators and several attorneys to craft.
The new document depicts four distinct areas and the stipulations for future annexation of each; an area designated for future North Liberty expansion only, an area green-lighted for Coralville’s immediate expansion, a segment that falls to Coralville only in the case of voluntary annexation by its property owners, and a final area that is off limits– period– to both cities for the 10-year term of the agreement.
When a draft of the new map was first presented in July, North Liberty Mayor Tom Salm said the agreement excluded those property owners who have requested not to be annexed into Coralville.
“In essence, it’s not affecting anybody that doesn’t want to be in Coralville or North Liberty,” Salm said in July.
But CSD member Darryl Granner says the arrangement provides only temporary protection for residents to the east of Coralville’s intended annexation– for 10 years– and no protection whatsoever to everyone else.
The term “voluntary annexation” refers to an 80/20 ratio of land– not the total number of landowners– in a proposed annexation area. Annexation is deemed voluntary when the owners of 80 percent of the property in question are agreeable. Owners of the remaining 20 percent of the land could oppose it, yet still be required to annex. Legally, a single person owning a majority of land can control the outcome of an annexation request over the wishes of dozens of his neighbors.
In this scenario, Granner noted, the map shows Coralville ready to annex about 500 acres, including a portion of the Scanlon farm– a single landowner– and the area connecting it to the current city limits. Therefore, Coralville could also annex another 100 acres of property from unwilling neighbors and it would still be considered a “voluntary” annexation.
Initially, it wasn’t general annexation the members of CSD necessarily opposed; it was this specific annexation– and the proposed development of the Scanlon farm– that raised concerns for several reasons.
“It is a public safety issue, and a complete change in character of the North Corridor between Highway 965 and Dubuque Street,” Granner said.
The original plan, presented by Southgate Development, was to build nearly 500 single and multi-family homes and commercial buildings on the Scanlon property, in an urban style development.
“If it is developed as described, it would be the second highest density of people per acre in the state of Iowa, based on the 2000 census,” Granner said. “That is out of character with that part of county.”
Further, Granner said, it is development without concern for the safety of the people who live there.
“We talked to about 1,200 people who live between Butler Bridge and the boundary of North Liberty, in direct conversation. The vast majority of those people were concerned about this. If you put that kind of density in there, the trips per day only increase, and it’s already one of most accident-prone stretches of road in the county. To say that the current roads can handle it is nonsense.”
To add to the potential traffic count, there has been talk of the Iowa City Community School District building a third high school somewhere in the North Corridor.
“If it’s ever built, it would be irresponsible of the first order to build it in this area serviced by those two roads as they are,” Granner said.
And since the new agreement still allows Coralville to annex the Scanlon property, the CSD’s two biggest concerns are the same today; the threat to public safety, and the lack of regard for public input.
In fact, Granner said, there have been several agencies and governmental bodies that have offered CSD only lip service and deaf ears.
“The [former] Johnson County Council Of Governments said when they did public road surveys, we’d be at the table; but we’ve never been asked to come to the table. Coralville has ignored us. Some of the North Liberty City Council members will talk to us, some won’t. We have talked to city officials a number of times. They have been pretty forthright, but they have never instigated a conversation with us.”
In addition, the City Development Board, the state-appointed body that decides annexation petitions, abdicated its responsibility when it indefinitely tabled North Liberty’s 2007 request to annex the land after Coralville’s petition was ruled invalid by the District Court. That petition was initiated by CSD members, property owners who wanted to voluntarily annex into North Liberty rather than go unwillingly into Coralville.
The 2007 North Liberty City Council voted unanimously to approve that petition and sent two requests for annexation to the City Development Board. The petitions were tabled, and the City Development Board asked the two cities to work it out among themselves.
Negotiations, it turned out, took about four more years.
North Liberty’s about-face is hard for Granner to follow.
“They have never given us reason why they didn’t want to do it. We have not had an explanation for why they are considering going in a different direction,” said Granner.
Both Hayworth and Heiar confirmed that CSD members were not contacted since they last pleaded their case for annexation before the North Liberty City Council in March 2010, though Heiar said his council has heeded CSD emails and attempted to address their concerns.
“While I understand not everyone is satisfied with the proposal, I believe the agreement is fair,” said Heiar. “Both cities agree that annexing county subdivisions is not in the best interest of the municipalities and therefore we have tried to exclude those areas from the growth areas of the cities.  More specifically, a significant number of CSD properties cannot be annexed by either city.  A good number of CSD properties can by annexed by Coralville only if the annexation is voluntary.  These two features were not contemplated originally.”
Granner said it was hard to view the agreement as a compromise, when one of the parties majorly affected– the county residents– were never actually included in the discussion.
“There are hundreds of people out there that don’t want development to go on under the sole discretion of one developer and/or a single municipality, without input,” Granner said.
Coralville City Administrator Kelly Hayworth, in an email communication last week, indicated that some county residents have offered input, and they favor annexation.
“We have requests for annexation in this area that can be served by the extension of gravity sewer and water,” Hayworth wrote. “This will allow for the orderly growth of the city.”
Hayworth said he thinks the terms of the agreement do offer protection for those who don’t want to be incorporated into either city.
“This agreement is just a first step,” Hayworth added. “If any property owner wants to subdivide or rezone their property, they will have to go through the planning and zoning commission and city council process, which will allow for input.
North Liberty City Administrator Ryan Heiar agreed.
“It’s important to remember that this agreement is not about what is being developed,” Heiar said. “Rather, it establishes a future boundary line for each city. The type of development can only be determined after an agreement is executed, and if and when property is annexed.”
Heiar said the agreement also helps secure North Liberty’s future expansion.
“It protects our northern growth area and prevents Coralville from ever annexing north of Dubuque Street,” he said.
But Heiar said it is not about which city controls the most area; the agreement was created based on which city can logically and affordably provide services to future residents.
“Both North Liberty and Coralville value smart growth and sustainable development and these issues are taken into consideration as we adopt an agreement and in future development,” said Heiar. “Even when this agreement is put to bed, the cities will still work together in developing this North Corridor, and to ensure that best uses and practices are applied.”
Both the North Liberty City Council and the Coralville City Council will consider the agreement at their Oct. 11 meetings. A public hearing on the matter will be included on North Liberty’s agenda.