Residential growth drawing protests from rural neighbors

Development plans have created conflicts across Eastern Iowa

Gregg Hennigan
Published: April 10 2013 | 5:30 am - Updated: 28 March 2014 | 1:49 pm in

IOWA CITY — Lisa Sedlacek walked to the end of the long gravel road, her family’s farm on three sides of her.

There’s a hayfield to the north, grazing cattle to the south and cropland to the east behind the farmhouse guarded by a row of evergreens — all on a combined 210 acres owned by the extended Sedlacek family about three miles north of Iowa City.

To the west, across Newport Road, is more farmland — at least for now. The landowner plans to sell 91 acres of it, and a real estate agent wants to put in a 70-home subdivision.

The proposal has gotten a lot of attention in recent weeks as the Sedlaceks and their neighbors, along with some city dwellers, have argued the homes would take farmland out of production and also harm the rural character of the area.

“What we see here as beauty is going to be a cluster of houses,” said Sedlacek, 52, looking across the street.

It’s an issue that plays out across the state and the nation: residential development in rural areas. And it can lead to controversy as two ways of life collide.

Mixed blessings

“We call that growth on the urban fringe. And that’s of a very mixed blessing, isn’t it?” said Paul Lasley, an Iowa State University professor who studies rural culture and rural development.

People like having more space and country living, he said.

The downside is tensions can arise and people not used to rural life may complain about lack of services or things like noise from farm equipment and odors, he said.

Although rural areas have been losing population across the U.S. and in Iowa, unincorporated areas are an attractive place for non-farmers to live and continue to see development.

Johnson County issued 65 building permits for single-family detached homes in 2012, its most since 2005. Linn County issued 68 permits in the same category, also the most since 2005.

“People will move to an area because they want the rural character and the views and sort of the bucolic lifestyle, so to speak,” said Les Beck, Linn County’s planning and development director. “But then when additional development is proposed ... change is difficult.”

Linn developments

Linn County has seen that at times in recent years.

A development with about 80 lots north of the small town of Bertram drew objections several years ago from Bertram residents worried about additional traffic, Beck said.

Another rural subdivision that attracted some attention a couple of years ago is near the intersection of Mount Vernon and Rosedale roads east of Cedar Rapids. Residents of a small residential area nearby objected to the possible development of a wooded area and a road connection, neither of which ultimately was done, Beck said.

Beck said Linn County’s land-use plan has likely prevented many conflicts from occurring in the first place. The plan identifies areas where new development is encouraged, and it sets standards for those projects.

About 80 of Iowa’s 99 counties have zoning ordinances, and following those can help with these types of issues, said Bill Peterson, executive director of the Iowa State Association of Counties.

Still, his organization does hear about rural-development disputes.

“It’s one of those tough decisions that boards of supervisors often get forced to make,” he said.

Growth area

That’s been the case in Johnson County with the Newport Road proposal. The county has a land-use plan, and the property in question is in an identified growth area.

That’s a point that has been emphasized by the county supervisors who were part of the 4-1 votes in March to rezone the 91 acres at 2915 Newport Rd. to allow for residential development.

“The rules allow this to happen, and this project meets every plan and policy we have,” Board of Supervisors chairwoman Janelle Rettig said.

That hasn’t stopped the fight from turning nasty, including raised voices and name-calling, by the public and individual supervisors, at meetings.

Landowner Sharon Dooley has characterized opponents as obsessed with stopping the project and desperate. The desperate comment came after a handful of people said they would start a hog confinement operation on the Sedlacek farm across from the proposed subdivision.

Lisa Sedlacek, who lives on the property with her husband, Denny, and is part of a well-known farming family in the Newport area, said she has heard no complaints from her neighbors about the plan.

The people who already live out there, which includes Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz and his family, have been accused of having a “not in my backyard” mentality. But they reject that, saying 70 homes would bring too many traffic and environmental problems and cause the loss of farmland.

Lasley, the Iowa State professor, said issues like these involving land-use and property rights often become contentious and emotional because the people who have lived in the area for years see “the possibility that their dream is going to be altered.”

“We see that played out over and over again,” he said.

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