By Lori Lindner
North Liberty Leader
NORTH LIBERTY– The City of North Liberty is ready to annex.
North Liberty has received voluntary petitions from three different property owners in an area east of current city limits. The requests make up a total proposed annexation of 567.7 acres.
North Liberty’s city administrator Ryan Heiar and city planner Dean Wheatley went before the Johnson County Board of Supervisors Wednesday, Dec. 11, to discuss the proposed annexation. A fringe area agreement between the two jurisdictions require them to discuss annexation proposals before submitting such requests to the City Development Board.
The annexation requests and North Liberty’s push to grant them were facilitated by the Iowa City Community School District’s plans to build a new high school and elementary school in the area, Wheatley told the board.
The area– about 434 acres of which is located on what has become known as the Scanlon Farm– has long been encumbered by annexation disputes, neighborhood objections and legal proceedings. Much of those issues were put to rest in 2011, when the cities of North Liberty and Coralville formalized an agreement dictating which city would annex certain portions of the area in future years. At the time, North Liberty expressed no desire to annex or provide municipal services to the east.
The Iowa City Community School District (ICCSD) quickly changed that with its purchase of 76 acres where it will build a third comprehensive high school. The planned high school is located near the intersection of North Liberty Road and Dubuque Street, which lies in North Liberty’s designated annexation area. Across the road, in Coralville’s annexed jurisdiction, ICCSD will build a new elementary school.
The district’s decision prompted North Liberty to launch the design of installing water and sanitary sewer service in the area. A $155,000 contract with Fox Engineering was approved for that purpose on Nov. 26. The preliminary design phase is expected to take about 120 days, after which the city will move into final design plans and construction as soon as possible.
“The school has an aggressive schedule for starting construction, and we are doing our best to accommodate that,” Heiar said. “We hope to start extending utilities to that area within a year.”
Next up was accepting four voluntary annexation petitions from rural residents. North Liberty received the county’s blessings on the annexation, but it prompted many questions from the board about the costs and responsibilities of providing infrastructure, particularly roads.
“Our streets department head is working with your folks to discuss how roads will be maintained in the future,” Wheatley told the supervisors. “However, we understand this is leading to urban growth for North Liberty, so we are looking into what we think will need to be done, especially on North Liberty road, to increase the carrying capacity of those roads to be able to accommodate urban traffic.”
Supervisor Rod Sullivan asked if the school district planned to contribute to the cost of road improvements.
“We have had those discussions, and there are indications that they will be in one way or another contributing to the improvements that are necessary,” Wheatley replied.
Heiar said providing city utilities would be the more expensive project.
“We’ve made it very clear, those costs will be reimbursed to us on a per-acre basis whether it’s (by) the school district or a developer. We are treating this like another development,” Heiar said. “From a streets standpoint, there is some concern on both parties on who will cover those costs.”
Heiar said he believes the district will be working out cost details with the cities of Iowa City, Coralville and North Liberty as it builds new elementary schools in all three jurisdictions to accommodate increasing enrollment.
“I think the school district (doesn’t) want to be unfair by giving one city one thing and not to another. I think it’s a matter of communication,” said Heiar, and noted that North Liberty officials and school district representatives meet monthly to discuss the project.
“I think that’s good and reasonable,” interjected Sullivan, “but there is a big difference between a 350-person elementary and what they are going to do here. It could be up to 1,600 students, and all that faculty.”
The county’s biggest concern is increased traffic, the burden it will put on roads and the potential safety issues it will create.
“What about North Liberty Road?” asked supervisor Terrence Neuzil. When West High School was built, he said, travelers often used Deer Creek Road, a gravel roadway, to cut through to the high school. A student was killed in a traffic accident, and the county closed a portion of Deer Creek Road after that. “This scenario is perfect to be real similar to that, with people coming off Penn (Street) and cutting through on North Liberty Road, rather than going all the way around to Dubuque Street,” Neuzil said.
Closing a portion of North Liberty Road would be a consideration, he added, if the road was not made safe for students. “We may have to look at those options versus the resources to put into a gravel road, particularly from the county’s perspective.”
Wheatley replied that his children attended Cedar Rapids’ Prairie High School, and the majority of students who attend there drive gravel roads daily.
“We have to be careful to just automatically label gravel roads as dangerous. I’m not sure that’s the case,” Wheatley said.
“But you’ve driven North Liberty Road,” Neuzil countered. “It has really big drop offs, lots of hills, lots of blind spots; it is not a good road for young drivers. You know that.”
Supervisor Janelle Rettig said traffic also worried her, including on Dubuque Street.
“My biggest fear is how much traffic is going to come around that way to the high school. None of these roads are on our five- or 10-year plan. We assumed that one day you would annex it and developers would help you pay for it and that would be the end of the story,” Rettig said.
Heiar said the city’s immediate focus will likely be the intersection of Dubuque Street and North Liberty Road.
“We anticipate some significant improvements at that intersection,” Heair said. The Metropolitan Planning Organization of Johnson County (MPOJC) is conducting a traffic study for the area which will help inform future road improvements, both short and long term, he added. Further, there are many other traffic factors currently under consideration.
“There are two pretty large subdivisions to our north that will potentially use Penn Street to get to that high school.” Heair said. “We need to evaluate what kind of pressure that will put on Highway 965 to get to Dubuque Street. We wouldn’t encourage it unless it’s a hard surface, and those are thing we will ask Shive-Hattery to look at.”
As property owners in the area– particularly on the Scanlon Farm– continue to develop, other street improvements may come into play as well, Heiar said, but much depends on where development begins. Meanwhile, he added, “we are not expecting the county to come in here and pave these (roads). Obviously, we understand where you’re at. We will take those things into consideration as we move forward.”
Both Sullivan and Neuzil made it clear that they had no interest in sharing costs, even if commercial development were proposed in the county’s unincorporated area.
“My approach would be that we are not doing anything here,” Sullivan said. “We will likely say go talk to (the city) and annex.”
“I don’t want to mention the T-I-F word, but I think our whole strategy on growth and development is going to change dramatically here just to survive on our county budget,” Neuzil said.
Heiar said he didn’t disagree with the county’s approach. With the school district’s plan to open the school in August 2017, North Liberty’s big push would be to get water and sewer pipes in the ground.
“We are moving as quickly as possible. We are in the information gathering stages for what roadwork needs to be done, especially at the intersection and what turn lanes would be needed before the school opens,” Heiar said.
Because discussion was conducted in an informal board work session, no action was taken on the item, but Sullivan did express support of the annexation and offered to write a letter of support to the City Development Board, the state entity that approves municipal annexation requests.
Finally, Neuzil asked if community outreach was being done to inform neighbors of the annexation plans.
“We will get a mailing out,” Wheatley replied, to landowners within 200 feet of the annexing properties, sent by certified mail to about 150 property owners.
Neuzil thanked Heiar and Wheatley for bringing the information to the board. The school district has not been as communicative, he said.
“There has been a bit of breakdown regarding the school’s ability to communicate with the county, yet they are building a high school on a piece of property that is currently in Johnson county, and we found out about it in the newspaper. So if you could help keep us in the loop, I think the anxiety becomes a little less,” said Neuzil.
“We are doing our best to do all the planning that needs to be done and get it done right,” Wheatley replied.
The North Liberty City Council is expected to vote on the annexation proposal at its Jan. 28, 2014 meeting.