NORTH LIBERTY– From the outside looking in, North Liberty appears to be no closer to resolving a disputed land issue with neighboring Coralville than it was four years ago.
But then, North Liberty thought it was pretty close back then.
Discussion among North Liberty council members and city officials got thorny at last Tuesday’s council meeting, as two council members said they were ready to take action, two wanted further discussion, the city attorney suggested they wait until they could talk in closed session, and Mayor Tom Salm and City Administrator Ryan Heiar asked for more time to negotiate a new agreement with Coralville City Manager Kelly Hayworth.
“We’ve been working on this thing for four years, plus,” said council member Gerry Kuhl. “How much more time do you need, and who’s to say nothing else is going on behind the scenes?”
The property under discussion lies in the unincorporated area of Johnson County between Coralville’s northeastern city limits and North Liberty’s southeastern boundary. The entire area has been the focus of negotiations between the two communities since their formal Fringe Area Agreement expired late in 2006 and each subsequently filed competing annexation applications for common properties in their fringe areas with the state’s City Development Board, prompted in part by Coralville’s plan to obtain the 387-acre Scanlon Farm property to develop it for residential use.
In January 2007, the City Development Board tabled the competing annexation petitions, urging the two communities to try and work something out among themselves.
Officials from both cities worked together to craft a map, finalized and presented to the North Liberty City Council in March 2010, that depicted both North Liberty’s and Coralville’s intended future annexation areas. It gave Coralville the Scanlon property, and a narrow corridor of land east of Coralville city limits to access it. Everything outside that agreed-upon boundary was to have been left alone for the time being, according to Salm.
However, last month, Coralville stepped in and purchased 47 acres of land from Diana Pratt and Moondance, LLC, for $3.5 million, land that lies to the north of Coralville’s agreed-upon future boundary.
Salm said Tuesday that Coralville officials said they did not notify North Liberty of the intended purchase ahead of time because the seller of the property wanted it “kept quiet until the purchase,” said Salm.
The 2010 map depicted boundary lines through the area defining potential areas of expansion for each city. Heiar said in a phone interview with the Leader that the document was “intended to be a living document, but it seemed at that point it was very feasible that it could be the future dividing line between Coralville and North Liberty.” However, the map was unofficial, having no legal status or any formal adoption. It was a general sort of agreement, rather than specific, Heiar said, but one that both cities found “reasonable.”
Coralville’s recent purchase, which North Liberty leaders said took them by surprise, impelled the North Liberty City Council to reopen discussions about whether to push their 2006 annexation application forward at the City Development Board level.
And it’s still under discussion, to the disappointment of at least two councilors.
On May 24, when the North Liberty City Council became aware of the land purchase and learned that Coralville City Council was to approve it the same night, it was brought up during the Mayor Salm’s report portion of the regular meeting. Council member Terry Donahue moved to suspend the rules of order so that the council might take immediate action on the item. Chipman was against that, suggesting instead it be placed on a future agenda.
While the annexation issue did appear on last Tuesday night’s agenda, it was only listed as a discussion item, so no formal vote could be taken. Both Donahue and Kuhl said that was not their understanding from May 24.
In a post-meeting interview, Kuhl said he met with Heiar prior to last Tuesday’s meeting and explained he would be making a motion on the issue that night to direct staff to request the City Development Board un-table the petitions and provide the city with updates and any necessary action steps.
“Nobody said anything about motions not being entertained,” Kuhl said. “I don’t like surprises, and when I say I’m going to bring a motion forward, and nobody says anything different…that’s why I was upset.”
“I hope this (the action item) was not deliberately left off,” Donahue said during the meeting.
Heiar assured the council it was not.
Peterson said it was listed as a discussion item because he did not remember three councilors who voted to put it on the agenda.
Donahue countered with a demand to know why putting anything on the agenda would require a formal, majority vote.
“Why should it be three council members to put something on the friggin’ agenda? I would think if you have two council people who said it’s important to have it on the agenda, that’s enough,” Donahue argued.
Moving forward in last Tuesday’s meeting, the discussion then became about the nature of future discussions.
Peterson suggested the council talk about it in a closed session, and each of the four councilors present (with Chris Hoffman absent) had a different opinion about that.
Councilor Coleen Chipman said she could go either way.
“I can see where there are things would want to discuss in closed session to strategize and for legality purposes,” said Chipman. “We need to discuss it in open session too, because it’s the public’s right to know.”
Council member Brian Wayson said he thought there were questions more appropriate to be asked in closed session, and wanted a closed session to be included on the agenda just in case.
“You could just take it off the agenda if there was nothing to talk about,” Wayson said.
Donahue said he would agree to a closed session only if it the discussion could be reported out in open session right afterward.
Kuhl said later that he sees no reason to hold the discussion in closed session.
“I don’t know what issues they want to talk about in closed session,” Kuhl said. “but we have an annexation petition that’s open record, we have signatures; it’s all a Development Board issue.”
Governmental bodies are not allowed to go into closed session except for 11 specific exemptions listed in Chapter 21 of the Iowa Code; in this case, Peterson cited the reason as to discuss items that are presently in litigation or where litigation is imminent.
A search on Iowa Courts online turned up no litigation filed in District Court involving the disputed property or between the two cities.
Because council direction was so diverse, the manner in which the annexation discussion will appear on the June 28 agenda– whether in open or closed session, or a combination of both– is yet to be determined, Heiar said, but he expected it to be on the June 28 agenda.
Meanwhile, he also hoped to have a proposal to bring back to the council that night. Heiar has been meeting with Coralville’s city administration to craft an updated agreement between North Liberty and Coralville over the land between.
“The purpose of our meetings is to talk about, and hopefully come to an agreement on, the line which we would use as a dividing line, that could be agreed upon by both city councils, and come to a conclusion that will be satisfactory to both councils,” said Heiar.