Iowa City council narrowly keeps Hickory Hill plan moving forward

Hickory Hill Trail Estates
An aerial rendering of the proposed Hickory Hill Trail Estates housing development. The dotted line outlines the proposed project's boundary. IMAGE VIA CITY OF IOWA CITY

A rezoning plan for a controversial housing development partially bordering Hickory Hill Park on Iowa City’s northeast side is still moving forward – albeit with significantly less support, at least in its current form, from the Iowa City Council.

At its meeting Tuesday night, the council voted 4-3 to allow the project to proceed, despite concerns raised once again regarding the project’s environmental impact on the 185-acre park and surrounding area.

Mayor Bruce Teague and council members Susan Mims, Janice Weiner and Laura Bergus voted in favor of the second reading of the rezoning proposal, while council members John Thomas, Pauline Taylor and Mazahir Salih voted in opposition.

The vote was dramatically closer than the first reading of the rezoning proposal, which was passed by the council 6-1 on June 15. Mr. Thomas cast the lone dissenting vote at that meeting.

The 43.75-acre proposal, dubbed Hickory Hill Trail Estates, is being put forth by developer Joe Clark and Nelson Development. It encompasses an area roughly bordered by North Scott Boulevard to the north, Hickory Heights Lane to the west and North First Avenue to the east, and includes 41 single-family homes as well as a senior living facility and assisted living complex. It would also add 14 acres of land to the park itself.

Hickory Hill Trail Estates senior center
A rendering of the proposed senior living facility and assisted living complex, part of the Hickory Hills Trail Estates plan. IMAGE VIA CITY OF IOWA CITY

The proposal has hit several snags en route to council consideration, including three attempts to gain approval from the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission. Most concerns have centered around adequate buffer zones between the project and Hickory Hill Park, as well as the plan’s compatibility with the city’s comprehensive plan and Northeast District plan.

Another point of contention centers around the plan’s main road, a through street south from North Scott Boulevard, then turning east toward North First Avenue. The original Northeast District plan, approved in 2007, suggested cul-de-sacs on each end of any development in the area to minimize flow-through traffic, but city officials said cul-de-sacs create concerns with public safety accessibility. Making that level of change to the developer’s proposal would have sent the entire process back to square one for city consideration, city attorney Eric Goers confirmed.

Council member Pauline Taylor said after further consideration of objections raised by community members, she would change her vote on the project and request consideration of further changes. “Hickory Hill Park is seen as a unique treasure,” Ms. Taylor said. “It is a natural park, peaceful and quiet. We need to do what we can to preserve that feeling. I’m not against development, but let’s be sensible about it and follow the intent of the comp plan and the Northeast District plan when making plans for development in this area.”

Before the vote to approve the second reading, council members generally agreed to continue discussions with the developer and the city’s forestry department to maximize the buffer between the development and the natural areas of the park.

The council is slated to revisit the development as part of its next meeting July 27.