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Rural subdivision approved despite neighbors’ concern for Lake Macbride

By Lori Lindner
North Liberty Leader
JOHNSON COUNTY– Despite public objections and petitioning neighbors, the Johnson County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a plat for an eight-home subdivision just west of Solon.
Developers Randy Remple, John Glick and Eric Waddell filed a preliminary plat with the Johnson County Planning & Zoning department in November for Grayson’s Landing, an 8-lot, single family residential subdivision on 180th Street one mile west of Solon. A petition signed by 60 neighbors was brought before the Johnson County Planning and Zoning Commission in December, and the commission deferred action until more information could be gathered on the environmental impacts of Lake Macbride, which abuts the proposed development.
In January, after hearing arguments from both sides, the commission voted to recommend approval of the 20-acre plat to the supervisors.
On Feb. 13, the supervisors heard from the developers’ representative, planning department and health department officials, and eight county residents before coming to the same conclusion: the plat conforms to the county’s rules, and the rules present no reasons to deny it.
Opponents offered several reasons for the board to either deny the plat or modify it to decrease its density. First, building eight homes on 1-acre lots so close to the lake could negatively impact the birds and wildlife that use the lake, said Mary Gilchrist. While the developer’s representatives from MMS Consultants and county staff obtained a written opinion Tim Thompson of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources that stated the wildlife would not be impacted, Mary Gilchrist qualified that opinion.
“I am hearing staff say that the wildlife biologist said the wildlife will not be impacted. That is not an accurate statement,” said Mary Gilchrist. “Those statements say the endangered species are not going to be impacted, but they have no provisions for any other wildlife. So if you take the white pelicans and the migratory birds that love that area of Lake Macbride, it seems they will be impacted.”
Neighbor Joe Rasmussen agreed, contending that the county’s land use policy states one of its purposes is to maintain sensitivity to natural areas.
“This development will disturb a unique area of Lake Macbride behind the silt dam,” said Rasmussen, where there is no boat traffic. “It creates a resting place for water fowl, the gulls, pelicans and swans we see in that area.”
Rasmussen pointed out several other ways that he felt the development conflicted with the county’s adopted Land Use Plan and unified development ordinance.
“It is your policy to proactively minimize conflict between incompatible land uses. That is the primary objection of the petitioners. This dense housing development does not conform to the neighborhood,” Rasmussen said. “We all built homes before the 1998 Land Use Plan was adopted, under the 5-acre minimum rule. Now the county states 5-acre densities are not smart growth. While the county no longer approves of us, the fact remains that the larger acreages are the predominate characteristic of this area. Approving a city oasis in this neighborhood violates your own written land use policy.”
Rasmussen and others noted the development’s proposed two wells and two septic systems will serve four homes each, concerned that new wells would draw water away from existing sources serving surrounding homes, and that the septic systems could be overloaded.
However, James Lacina, Environmental Health Coordinator with Johnson County’s department of public health, said soil testing indicated the waste water systems would be sufficient, the county’s maximum of five acres per septic system was met in this case, and that a wastewater maintenance plan was supplied by the developers, over and above what is required for rural subdivisions. The wastewater maintenance plan states the septic systems on the property will be inspected annually, which is beyond county requirements. Further, Lacina said, the U.S. Geological Survey conducted a well forecast and determined the water supply was adequate for the number of homes in the area.
Lacina and county planning official Josh Brusard both noted that developers were required to create a storm water management plan to show how rainwater runoff will be handled.
“Currently the property is row cropped, and storm water is not being treated but tiled and drained directly into lake,” said Brusard. After developers install two storm water retention basins and a bio-retention cell that uses native plantings and natural landscaping to slowly drain and filter water, “the quantity of runoff will decrease and quality will actually be improved.”
David Gilchrist, speaking as a representative of the Lake Macbride Conservancy organization, appealed to the board’s sense of history and responsibility for conservation.
“Lake Macbride was a gift to the state of Iowa and to Johnson County. At the time it was created, they were careful to surround the lake by park. It was funded by Cottage Reserve, which was careful to create its own sewer system. It was designed not just for houses; a lot of people were involved and everyone thought of it as a site for nature,” said David Gilchrist. “We understand the crank turns. But if it keeps turning, you are going to surround the whole south end of that lake with housing, and that is not in keeping with the spirit of what that lake was supposed to be. If the land continues to be developed, the whole south arm is going to be a town.”
Neighbor Greg Darrow offered an even more emotional plea.
“When we talk about a buffer zone around Lake Macbride, I’m looking at every one of you right now to be that buffer zone,” said Darrow. “You are playing with words. It’s tract homes in the middle of (land) never intended to be built upon. You think this is going to be better environmentally to put up eight houses? It doesn’t make sense to me. It’s totally irresponsible.”
But Brusard maintained the subdivision, which lies in a designated growth area on the county’s land use map, does comply with dominant theme of the county’s land use policy: to preserve and protect agricultural and environmentally sensitive areas while encouraging growth in appropriate areas.
“Staff doesn’t feel the smaller lot size makes it incompatible with surrounding uses, the Land Use Plan or the unified development ordinance,” said Brusard. “Inappropriate large lots and low density development can lead to inefficient and un-economical sprawl development inconsistent with the type of development the board is looking for.”
In the end, the board agreed, with a unanimous vote to approve the development after offering individual comments.
Supervisor Janelle Rettig pointed out that the board cannot condemn land to keep from developing it strictly for conservation purposes.
“If you want us to condemn land we just can’t do it. Within the (current) rules, landowners have rights. If you have ideas about how to improve the Land Use Plan, by all means bring them forward. I’m not afraid to have developers mad at me, but you have to follow your own rules. I don’t know how to go about it otherwise, or we get sued,” Rettig said.
Supervisor Rod Sullivan said the neighbors’ comments did not fall on deaf ears, but he, like Rettig, felt the county’s land use policies were in place for good reason.
“We take tons of public input, create committees, work for over a year to create a land use plan, it goes through the respective boards with all kinds of public hearings,” said Sullivan. “Once the rules in are place, if we don’t follow them, why did we do all that? We can’t make exceptions because of a room full of passionate people.”
And supervisor chair Terrence Neuzil agreed that the board’s role as county managers was guided by the policies in place.
“We are not the experts when it comes to land use, the environment, the engineering, the soil and water conservation, the public health: we ask our staff, which are the best staff in the entire state of Iowa, to tell us what is in the best interest of this county. I have a lot of trust and faith in them,” said Neuzil.
But the county’s Land Use Plan, originally adopted in 1998, has been significantly updated twice and will be reviewed again soon. Neuzil said the supervisors, county staff and committees of stakeholders will heed the comments made in this case.
“Starting next year we will begin looking at updates for the Land Use Plan. As we do so, some of the things I’ve heard tonight, some things that have to do particularly with this lake, will be incorporated into it because of this meeting. There is no doubt we do need to have a stronger voice for those who want to see different rules and regulations around this lake.”