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Prepare to head east?

NORTH LIBERTY– Fast on the heels of the recently adopted annexation agreement between the cities of North Liberty and Coralville, developers are already sniffing out property on the county’s side of North Liberty’s eastern border.
According to City Administrator Ryan Heiar, city planners have heard from developers interested in developing to the east.
During a budget work session last Tuesday, Nov. 22, Heiar asked council members to list their top priorities for spending in Fiscal Year 2013. When councilor Gerry Kuhl stated he was not in favor of committing funds to expand infrastructure into the fringe area between Coralville and North Liberty– at least for the next year– because of the potential impact on water and sewer rates, Heiar asked for more clarification.
“We have talked about that,” Heiar said. “That was part of the discussions throughout this (annexation agreement) process. What does the council want to see?”
Council member Chris Hoffman said he believes the City of North Liberty has already made a commitment to property owners in the area.
“We need to be able to support that financially,” said Hoffman. “No funding out there means we don’t want to develop it, and if we get no funding and no development, 10 years is going to go by and we are going to be sitting here holding the bag.”
City Planner Dean Wheatley said he didn’t like to be the one to say, “I told you so, but we talked about this very specifically,” said Wheatley. The city council had previously discussed whether or not to grow the city to the east, he added, and “if we’re going to do that, we are going to have to spend money because we don’t have infrastructure there today.”
Wheatley said there could be significant costs to install sewer, water and road improvement coming down the line in order for development to occur.
“Our instructions were make it happen,” Wheatley said. “There are expectations by property owners out there, and if we are unable to fulfill our part of the deal– which is providing the infrastructure they need– then we’re probably not making a good faith effort to follow through.”
Council member Terry Donahue said if property owners had those expectations, they should approach the city.
“They have,” Wheatley replied.
Donahue countered, “We’ve done all the talking in-house.” Donahue added that he would rather see infrastructure within current city limits taken care of first, and make expansion to the east a lower priority. Hoffman concurred, but said it shouldn’t preclude setting aside money for expansion ahead of time.
Councilor Coleen Chipman asked if a financial commitment needed to be made this year. Heiar replied there was no legal requirement for the city to commit funds to expand city services to the unincorporated area, but “developers want to know our plans,” he said. “There are a couple of them that would start today if they could. They’re ready to go.” Though developers would help pay for some improvements, Heiar continued, it would likely not be enough to fund them all.
Kuhl asked if all North Liberty citizens would be expected to help pay for the eastern infrastructure through increased water and sewer rates.
“I don’t want to see my water bill double because we have to develop out there and not be compensated for it in future years,” said Kuhl.
Mayor Tom Salm explained that generally speaking, all city residents are taxed for infrastructure projects, regardless of their addresses.
“It doesn’t matter if it occurs out there or on Jones Boulevard,” said Salm. “You’re still going to pay for it.”
Chipman agreed the city needed to have a plan in place within 10 years, but she would like to further scrutinize whether or not developing to the east fits into the city’s overall plan for growth for the next year.
“If it doesn’t, then I don’t think we have to commit the funds now,” Chipman said. “Either way we still have a lot of unknowns at the state level,” she continued, referring to legislative talks about property tax changes. “I would not like to see us commit money going in that direction in the budget year 2013. It has to be on the city’s terms, rather than what all the developers want us to do. We need to have a timeframe of when it works for the city.”
Hoffman suggested phasing the funding into the budget now.
“It’s not a matter of us going out and starting these projects, but a slight increase
this year, a slight increase the following year, is a lot easier to swallow than a gigantic increase two or three years from now,” Hoffman said.
Donahue indicated that if developers were also ready to negotiate on cost sharing for infrastructure projects, “that changes the ball game.”
Heiar agreed.
“That helps, because we have some people I think are ready to do that,” said Heiar.
He concluded the discussion by asking to include the on-going discussion of eastward expansion in the city’s budget goal-setting process, to which the council gave its informal consensus.