By Lori Lindner
North Liberty Leader
NORTH LIBERTY– Sometimes all you have to do is ask nicely.
Other times, you have to lay your personal dreams out on the table and plead for them to be considered.
A North Liberty resident did a little of both at last week’s council meeting, and ultimately got the answer she was hoping for.
The Fox Valley subdivision on the south side of North Liberty was contentious at its start, but things have been mostly quiet there since building began. Nearly 65 homes have been built in Fox Valley and the Boulders subdivisions since the development was approved in 2006.
The current city code contains no requirement for developments in North Liberty to include green or open space as part of a new or expanding site plan, as many municipalities have. Green space is seen as a quality-of-life feature that provides benefits such as increased recreational opportunities, protection of wildlife habits, flood control by the use of retention ponds or basins, and groundwater protection. Part of the initial developer’s agreement for Fox Valley was the inclusion of green space.
In 2006, Fox Valley developers complied with the city’s requirement, including in this planned phase an acre-and-a-half of grassy area that was to remain open, undeveloped, and under the city’s maintenance.
However, as North Liberty’s parks department finds itself with increasingly more parks, trailways and public spaces to care for, officials feel it makes financial sense to reduce the city’s responsibility for smaller, low-maintenance areas.
That was the city’s intent when Fox Valley developers submitted a new 16-acre plat for their next phase of building. City staff suggested the developers take back the green space and incorporate it into the yards of the proposed new lots. In an attempt to accommodate the city’s request but still provide some green for homeowners, the developers took it a step further, agreeing to landscape the half acre remaining, and turn it over to a homeowners’ association to maintain. In revising the plat toward that end, they narrowed the green space and added another residential lot in the former open area.
But that’s not what the neighbors had bargained for, and some of them didn’t agree with the revision.
Three Fox Valley residents came to the North Liberty Planning & Zoning (P&Z) Commission meeting Nov. 5 to voice concerns about having a new houses built directly behind their existing homes, which was not part of the initial preliminary plat.
Resident Jennifer Carlson of Red Barn Drive explained that she and her husband had just purchased a lot in Fox Valley to build their dream home after much searching for the perfect lot throughout Johnson County– one which did not have neighbors close behind.
“It was a long buying process for us and we made a lot of decisions based on the information and expectations we were given that the area behind our house would remain as green space,” said Carlson. Realtors from Lepic Kroeger had created maps of the preliminary plat showing open space behind the Carlsons’ lot, she said, and used it as a marketing tool to prospective buyers.
“Nobody brought up the possibility it might change,” Carlson said.
But North Liberty City Attorney Scott Peterson pointed out the inherent nature of a preliminary plat.
“Nothing is set in stone in a preliminary plat until it comes in as a final plat,” Peterson explained. “We have seen changes in parts of preliminary plats before they’ve gone to final.”
City Planner Dean Wheatley told the P&Z board that most of the time, changes in preliminary plats are very minor and don’t always come before the board to review.
“Those changes are usually not substantial changes in the layout, and that’s why we wanted to run this by you and council; it seemed to us a substantial enough change that we should know, before we go forward and the developer puts a lot of money into infrastructure, whether or not it is acceptable.”
Further, Wheatley said, the city cannot be held responsible for what developers or builders tell prospective buyers.
Fox Valley resident Kim McCarty appealed to the P&Z members’ sense of empathy.
“I would ask you to think about how you would react if you just purchased a property and built a house based on a plan– whether it was preliminary or final– that this is why you went there. How would you as citizens of North Liberty look at that, and what would you like the city council and P&Z to do?”
P&Z members expressed empathy, but acted on behalf of the city’s desire to reduce its maintenance responsibility for the green space.
“It’s an unfortunate situation, but I never like to take over pieces of land that are not able to be used as a park,” said P&Z chair Dave Moore. “I am leaning toward recommending approval as is, so the city can be released of its responsibility for this section.”
And that’s what they did. P&Z voted to recommend the new plat for council approval, 4-1, with Annie Obrecht casting the dissenting vote.
Carlson did not give up; she approached the North Liberty City Council last Tuesday during its Nov. 12 meeting and tried again.
“You’ll have to excuse me if I’m a little bit unconcerned about how much extra money it’s going to cost the city or the developer to maintain this space, but I do know how much it’s costing me,” Carlson said. “It’s easy to sit here and redraw lines on a piece of paper, but one month ago I signed my name on the bottom of a 30-year mortgage, and I can’t erase that line. I ask you to honor the commitments that previous council members have made and do what is just and fair so we can have the home we dreamed of.”
And after asking questions of developer representative Mike Bales, the council diverged from the P&Z commission’s recommendation.
“I think the bond we made to the citizens, even though it is not binding, is that preliminary plat. I personally wouldn’t like the idea of the rules behind changed in the middle of the game,” said council member Gerry Kuhl. Councilors Terry Donahue and Chris Hoffman concurred.
“If (the inclusion of green space) was a requirement in 2006, we took responsibility for it and we own it,” said Donahue. “This is probably a good lesson learned for when we do things in the future. I feel like we should live with our previous commitment.”
It meant the city would retain responsibility of caring for the open space.
Hoffman moved to approve the proposed preliminary plat with the stipulation that the area behind the existing homes remain as open space, as originally platted.
The next phase of development in Fox Valley will now be allowed to move forward as originally platted.