Thirteen acres of partially wooded land on Seminole Valley Road NE north of the city’s Ushers Ferry Historic Village and Seminole Valley Park won’t be developed as residential lots like property around it.
Instead, Dave Blankenship, an AEGONUSA executive who is active with scouting, wilderness training and a local amateur radio club, intends to create the Pathfinder Outdoor Education Center on the property.
"I sold my golf clubs years ago, and decided to work with kids instead, and so that’s what I do as a hobby," Blankenship, president of AEGONUSA Realty Advisors Inc. and president of AEGONUSA investment management, said on Thursday. "We do a lot of community educational for kids."
Blankenship on Thursday secured approval from the City Planning Commission on an 7-0 vote for a conditional use permit to operate "a campground" on what is property currently zoned for agricultural use. The city’s Board of Adjustment has final say on the permit and will vote later this month.
Before Thursday’s commission meeting, Blankenship said that he had met with neighbors in recent weeks to explain his plans and to answer their questions about parking, traffic, lighting and tree-cutting on the property and to show them what proposed buildings on the property might look like.
Blankenship assured neighbors that existing timber on the south side of the property nearest their homes would remain a forest preserve to buffer them from the education center.
"… (I told them) that they had basically won the lottery because that property had been slated for residential development and would have been pretty high-density stuff right up against their houses," he said. "Instead, it will continue to look like it does now, which is a line of trees."
Even so, two neighbors spoke to the City Planning Commission on Thursday about their concerns with the project.
Mike Yakos, of 6511 Cottage Hill Lane NE, said that the city’s streets in the neighborhood have not kept up with development in the area, and he said he worried that having young drivers coming to the educational center would add traffic and increase driving risks.
Commission member Allan Thoms, who also lives in the neighborhood, told Yakos that building houses on the 13-acre parcel would add more traffic and daily traffic to the neighborhood than the education center would.
John Schuchmann, of 3512 Forest Valley Ct. NE, wondered how much wilderness training and noise might take place at night during the summer and he also worried about traffic on a proposed new access road into the property.
City staff members noted that the city was requiring the new access road to allow emergency access to five proposed camping cabins, but the road otherwise would not be used.
Blankenship said any night educational classes outdoors would not extend beyond about 9 p.m. He was more interested in maintaining a buffer of trees to keep neighbors out as to protect the center from neighbors, he said.
Thoms said he was glad to see that the center buildings would take up only 14 percent of the 13 acres. Typically, the city sees developments where only 14 percent of the land is left undeveloped, he said.
The plan is for the Pathfinder Outdoor Education Center to start with a large garage, which will house training vehicles, including an ambulance and rescue truck, and the local amateur ham radio club’s radio center. Next, the plan calls for a lodge-like classroom building. The third phase of development could include five small camping cabins for overnight stays.
The center won’t function like a "Yogi Bear" kind of campground, Blankenship said.
Instead, he compared the center to Linn County’s Wickiup Hill Learning Center, where his group now conducts classes. Most who will use the center will be from ages 14 to 20 and will include male and female scouts and their leaders. They will learn about the outdoors, wilderness first aid, CPR, green technologies like wind and solar power and amateur radio operation.
Blankenship expected that a parking lot on the property will be in place by spring and largely concealed from the view of neighbors. Construction of the center’s garage and radio center will begin in the spring, too, he said.
For now, the education center is a private entity, but Blankenship said it likely would seek non-profit status in the years ahead.
He is purchasing the property, at 3510 Seminole Valley Rd. NE, from Paul and Jane Pate. Paul Pate, president of Pate Group/Pate Asphalt Systems, has served as mayor of Cedar Rapids, Iowa Secretary of State and an Iowa state senator.The property had been an old farm with a house, but the Pates removed the house sometime in the past, Blankenship said.