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Neighbors oppose rural Solon development

Corps of Engineers, DNR and county recommend approval

By Lori Lindner
Solon Economist

SOLON– A housing subdivision proposed for 20 acres just west of Solon has ruffled some feathers, and not just those of the thousands of pelicans that flock to the adjacent lakefront each migratory season.
Developers Randy Remple and John Glick filed a preliminary plat with the Johnson County Planning & Zoning department in November on behalf of Randy Remple Construction, et. al., for Grayson’s Landing, an eight-lot, single family residential subdivision to be located along the north side of 180th Street and just west of Jordan Creek Road, approximately one mile west of Solon city limits. The land is currently zoned AR- Agriculture Residential.
The Johnson County Planning & Zoning (P&Z) Commission unanimously agreed to recommend approval of the preliminary plat to the county’s board of supervisors.
Neighboring property owners took issue with the proposal at a December P&Z meeting and expressed their concerns concerns again at the Monday, Jan. 13, session.
The commission deferred taking action on the preliminary plat in December because questions were raised about potential environmental impacts on Lake Macbride, which borders the proposed development.
Neighbors who live near the property presented a petition with 60 signatures of people in opposition, hoping that the P&Z would deny Remple’s application. It apparently had no impact on the commission, said Joe Rasmussen, whose property abuts the proposed subdivision to the west.
“The (P&Z) board made it clear that, as long as (the developers) followed the ordinances, what the neighbors ask for doesn’t have any impact,” Rasmussen said during the public comment portion of last week’s meeting.
The petitioners’ concerns center around three major factors: that developing the area at that density would likely have environmental impacts on the water quality, fish and wildlife of Lake Macbride; that the single access drive in the center of the subdivision lies at the bottom of two hills from either side; and that the smaller, one-acre lots conflict with both the character of the existing neighborhood and the five-acre rule of development most of the surrounding property owners abided when they built their own homes.
“The Code of Iowa states that regulations of this sort should have reasonable consideration, among other things, as to the character of the district and the particular suitability of such an area for particular uses. That goes to the heart of petitioners’ objections to this development. Many of us built acreages on the five-acre rule, and last month we learned that the five-acre rule went out window at some point in time, which surprised many of us,” Rasmussen said. As a 30-year veteran of government participation, Rasmussen said change like that does not happen without an interest group pushing for it. “The people on the petition would like to know, who was behind it? What caused that change?”
R.J. Moore, assistant administrator of Johnson County’s planning and zoning department, said the change was adopted in 1998 as part of the county’s move to encourage clustered subdivisions, and was reaffirmed by the Johnson County Board of Supervisors’ adoption of the county’s Land Use Plan in 2008. P&Z commission member Terry Dahms said he sat on a 13-member committee that had debated and developed the guidelines for rural development for nearly two years before recommending the revised Land Use Plan to the supervisors. Neither Moore nor Dahms indicated a specific interest group or force behind the change.
Johnson County’s Land Use Plan lists two standards for development patterns for fringe areas that lie within two miles of city limits like this one does: the first is to discourage development in areas with high corn suitability ratings, high water tables, wetlands, flood plains or other sensitive areas; and the second to encourage cluster development in order to preserve large tracts of open space, including environmentally sensitive areas and farm land.
Protecting the watershed immediate to Lake Macbride was another concern Rasmussen raised on behalf of his neighbors.
“The other point is the impact and harm on the natural environment and migratory bird populations that rely on the shallow end of the lake protected from boaters and fishers by the silt dam immediately in front of this development,” Rasmussen said in an email communication. “There is considerable opposition from the Macbride Conservancy organization and local bird groups who are concerned about the impact on the lake.”
Representatives from the Macbride Conservancy group did not respond to email requests for more information about their concerns last week.
However, Sandra Steil of MMS Consultants, representing the two developers, said Tim Thompson of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and MMS wetland specialist Trevor Dickerson had both cleared the development’s compliance with the sensitive areas ordinance. Further, said Steil, she and two county planning officials met with representatives of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, owner of the wetlands area adjacent to the proposed subdivision.
“They looked at the plat, and they all agreed they are okay with it,” said Steil. In fact, she added, the Corps felt the development would enhance the quality of the water draining onto the wetlands. “Right now, any fertilizer or treatment on this land is going directly into the lake. After development, it has to be treated for quality and quantity. That is going to help the lake.”
The developers are required to file a storm water management plan, but as a good faith measure, Steil added, they also submitted a storm water maintenance agreement detailing how the storm water runoff will be treated in the future, as a good faith measure.
Further, Steil said she contacted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to ask about potential impacts to the inhabitants of the lake and wetlands.
“They gave us their blessing,” Steil said. As for concerns about the white pelicans and their migratory habitats, her research indicated that pelicans don’t nest in that location. “It’s more of a hangout spot for them. They prefer rivers,” Steil said.
Rasmussen questioned how the developers will build a drive into the subdivision without altering the flow of water into the existing drainage ditch on the property, which cannot be altered according to Iowa law. Rasmussen also said he is very concerned that well planned to serve four of the eight new houses will be placed right next to his own, and could impact his water source. P&Z chair Robert Conrad directed Rasmussen to contact an attorney to address that issue. Jason Decker of the Johnson County Public Health Department replied that an assessment of the property had been conducted by Paul Vandorpe of the Iowa Geological Survey.
“He has done a water forecast for eight houses there, and he had no objections,” Decker said. “If the water is there, it’s completely do-able.”
Finally, neighbor Terry Edmonds addressed the P&Z board to talk about the dangers of placing the access drive between two hills on 180th Street. Edmonds’ driveway is directly across from the proposed access.
“If I were building that driveway today, I would not put it there.” Edmonds said he witnessed more than one accident on the roadway because of poor visibility. “You cannot see cars coming from the west. Someone coming fast over the hill can’t stop in time. I would recommend moving the driveway (to either end of the property) so you would have a clear view from both directions.”
Moore argued that the planned driveway is within the county’s sight distance requirements.
“Five hundred and fifty feet is the minimum sight distance for a 55 mph road,” said Moore. “If you move the road to the left or right, one side will be compromised.”
Given that the development will contain two storm detention basins and two bio-retention cells, Moore said his department’s conclusion is that the development will do more to protect the watershed than what is happening with the ground in its current agricultural use, with untreated runoff going directly into the lake.
“We are very favorable to this concept, it is infill development in our corridor, it is sharing wells and septic systems, planning smaller lots with 50 percent of the parcel set aside for open space,” said Moore.
P&Z member Julie VanDyke summed up her thoughts on the application.
“I hate the idea of further developing out by Macbride, but that is not my choice to make,” VanDyke said. “That’s the Land Use Plan, and I do like the idea of 50 acres of agricultural land not draining directly into the lake unchecked.”
VanDyke added that she understand the neighbors’ wishes to maintain the character of the neighborhood as it was when they moved in, but “the unfortunately reality is that there are more of us all the time, and we all have the right to buy the place of our dreams. I take the Corps’ recommendation and the DNR recommendations seriously. I look forward to seeing improved migratory groups with healthier water there.”