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A pig and a poke

Newport neighbors hope to highlight incompatibility of county’s new zoning

IOWA CITY– By a 4-1 vote, the Johnson County Board of Supervisors approved the third and final reading of a controversial rezoning request on Thursday, March 28. The vote cleared the way for 90.89 acres of agricultural land owned by Sharon Dooley at 2915 Newport Road to be rezoned to the county’s new RC, or Residential Cluster, designation. The move allows Iowa City realtor Bill Young to move forward with plans for a 70-unit housing development.
Board chair Janelle Rettig opened the floor to anyone who had not already addressed the board regarding the rezoning. The first reading of the proposal on Tuesday, March 12, brought an overflow crowd of over 30 people, mostly opposed, speaking in a public hearing. The second reading was held on Thursday, March 21, with additional comments from the public. Rettig said board members had also received extensive comments regarding the issue.
On a roll call vote, the rezoning was granted with supervisor John Etheredge as the opposing voice.
For opponents, it was the third defeat in a row, one they initially never saw coming.
“We never thought the board would rezone the land,” said Laurie Tulchin, a Newport Road resident. Tulchin and Dooley were allies several years ago when the county proposed upgrading Newport Road and replacing the current thoroughfare with a new alignment, one that would have cut through Dooley’s property. Together with other residents of Newport Road, they fought to save Sharon’s and the late Mike Dooley’s farm.
Now, Tulchin and others are waging another battle, this time to put what they see as the incompatibility of urban-style housing developments and agricultural land on full display. Tulchin and Jim Glasgow, along with at least three others, have formed a venture they are calling the Newport Hog Cooperative, LLC. Already, the co-op is renting four acres of Jim Sedlacek’s century farm across the road from Dooley’s property.
“We’re trying to point out it isn’t true, what R.J. Moore (Johnson County Planning and Zoning Assistant Administrator) said about the Dooley farm being surrounded by housing developments,” Glasgow said, a key point in the Planning and Zoning’s (P&Z) acceptance of the proposed development as an RC. Glasgow looked to an aerial photograph of the area, pointing out farms and farmland. “It (the RC designation) really doesn’t go with the rural character.” He’s not totally opposed to the concept of the RC, he said, but “the board should push for development closer to town.”
Glasgow sees the effort to put the county’s first RC development on the Dooley land as an example of a disconnect between rural residents and the board of supervisors.
“Our feeling is, we don’t have any representation other than John Etheredge. They’re all urbanites,” Glasgow said. Supervisors Rettig, Rod Sullivan and Terrence Neuzil live in Iowa City, while supervisor Pat Harney lives on an acreage north of Iowa City on Highway 1. Etheredge, the first Republican elected to the board in decades, rents a farm property near Kalona.
Glasgow also sees a degree of hypocrisy in the board’s support for the development. “They should be against this urban sprawl,” he said pointing to board members’ statements about reducing carbon footprints and other green initiatives. In addition, the county’s development plan specifically calls for protecting farmland, an argument opponents used to no avail.
There would likely be a natural progression of housing in the area, Glasgow said, but when it comes to RC in the Newport neighborhood, Glasgow was blunt.
“The whole concept is flawed,” he said. Glasgow, Tulchin and the others hope a lot full of hogs will help underscore their position.
“We want to put it right in their faces,” Glasgow said of the county. He indicated the hog enterprise has already been reviewed by the Iowa State Extension Service and has received no objections from the county; per Iowa Code, counties cannot regulate farms, so the proposed hog operation, which will be situated on the existing Sedlacek farm, will not require approval of the Johnson County P&Z or the board of supervisors.
Farmers have come forward offering to donate feeders and huts for the pigs, and, according to Glasgow, nearly every neighbor is okay with the operation. The plan is for an open-air hog lot with no confinement building for free-range/organic pigs with 400 head. While Sedlacek will guide the operation with his many years of experience raising livestock, the group is also seeking outside help in the form of a young agriculture student. It’s a way to help a future farmer learn the business, Glasgow said. Fencing will go up soon, while electric and water lines are being extended to the lot to ensure healthy and happy hogs.
If future neighbors aren’t as happy, Glasgow frankly doesn’t sympathize.
“If you’re really going to move to the country, livestock is out there. They make noise at all hours of the day and night. There’s smells, there’s dust, there’s farm equipment on the road. You may be a little late some morning going to work,” he said. “Bill Young really has to think about this now.”
Glasgow fears there will be an increase in accidents on Newport Road if the development goes in and the new residents contend with farm machinery on the narrow road.
Tulchin expressed her take on the board’s action as well.
“They’re determined to test the Rural Cluster,” she said. “(The theory) behind the RC is reduced conflict. We’re going to put that to the test.” Tulchin added some are calling the hog lot a revenge move, a critique she brushes off. “Welcome to the country, we’ve got hogs, we’ve got cows, we’ve got tractors. The county is trying to spin this as revenge-driven, but it isn’t.”
“We’ve always had hogs on the farm,” Sedlacek interjected.
Tulchin agreed with Glasgow that the RC concept would be better suited closer to the city and said the demand for rural housing does not justify rezoning agricultural land to RC.
“Promote growth closer to town,” she said. “Right now, there’s a 20-year inventory (of lots). RC does not reduce conflict between agriculture and urban development, it increases it. There is nothing environmentally sound about an RC.”
Following the major blow suffered after the March 12 meeting, Tulchin and other opponents received a gift, she said, when supervisor Terrence Neuzil proposed amending the minutes of the meeting. Originally, it was to have been the first and second reading, with three required to be enacted. Therefore, the second reading, with comments, was held on March 21. Tulchin says the group tried to meet individually with each supervisor and noted Rettig’s refusal to meet with them. “It became obvious they were going to go forward with the rezoning.” The plan for the hog operation was raised soon after.
Tulchin ran through a litany of names she and others have been called because of their fight. “We’re just neighbors who disagree.” Tulchin said she doesn’t fault Dooley or Young, as they worked through the system as it is, and might not have wanted what the RC calls for.
Dooley and Tulchin said they hold no animosity toward Dooley; in fact, Glasgow and Tulchin drafted a formal purchase offer to buy her land at $10,000 per acre, which Glasgow said is 125 percent of the land’s appraised value. The offer also proposed to restrict the land’s use to agricultural purposes for a minimum of 30 years and to donate at least 10 percent of the land to the Johnson County Heritage Trust for future preservation. However, he added, Dooley has been asking $16,000-$17,000 per acre, not as farm ground, but as land for development. While he is not optimistic their offer will ever be accepted, he made it clear that the offer still stands.
In the meantime, the hog co-op is on track.
At the March 12 meeting, Dooley blasted what she called, “self-appointed guardians who think they know best,” and decried the drama resulting from her decision to sell her private property.
Glasgow acknowledged repercussions of the conflict as well. “This has been really unfortunate for the neighborhood,” Glasgow lamented.
With Dooley’s rezoning request approved, the issue now shifts back to P&Z, where site plans for the proposed residential subdivision will be reviewed, discussed and ultimately must be approved before recommendation to the board of supervisors.
“We’ll be at every meeting,” Tulchin said.