Iowa City Council rejects rezoning for Hickory Hill Estates development

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

It’s back to square one for a proposed residential development near Hickory Hill Park.

In a dramatic reversal of earlier decisions, the Iowa City Council voted 5-2 Tuesday night to reject the third and final reading of a rezoning plan for the 48.75-acre development, dubbed Hickory Hill Estates.

The council had voted twice to approve the rezoning plan – 6-1 on June 15 and 4-3 on July 6 – but this time, with another adamant group of community residents stepping forward at Tuesday night’s meeting to oppose the rezoning, Mayor Bruce Teague and council member Janice Weiner had a change of heart.

Ms. Weiner said one key change developers had made to the proposal – replacing cul-de-sacs on the northern and southern approaches to the property with a single-loaded through street – compelled her to oppose the plan.

“I understand that there are reasons to not allow cul-de-sacs,” she said. “At the same time, I absolutely loved the cul-de-sacs from the previous (development plan). And it also underscores what one of our commenters said earlier this evening – we’re making decisions for 100 years from now.”

Hickory Hill Trail Estates senior center
A rendering of the proposed senior center and long-term care facility, part of the Hickory Hills Trail Estates plan. IMAGE VIA CITY OF IOWA CITY

Mr. Teague addressed another claim made by commenters Tuesday night – that the proposal, particularly the through street, was not compatible with the Northeast District master plan for the area, which has been in place for several years. He said he considered four factors in deciding to oppose the plan in its current form: The through street, the inclusion of a memory care facility – which he said he supports as a community need — the climate impact to the land and the nearby park, and the buffers separating the development from the park itself.

“When the councilors look at the (Northeast District) plan, there’s an understanding that that’s what we should be following,” he said. “What we’ve seen is that our plans are outdated, and earlier today, we had a discussion about some of the changes we need to make. I believe it’s because of conversations like this that we really need to make those changes … When I look at the park and this plan and the district overlay, I just believe it is not the time for the council to approve this project.”

Council members John Thomas, Pauline Taylor and Mazahir Salih also voted to oppose the plan, while council members Susan Mims and Laura Bergus cast the two supporting votes.

“This project will expand the park,” Ms. Bergus said, “and I worry that if we turn it down tonight, that once litigation is complete – and honestly, there may be litigation however this vote comes out – once all of that is done, what if it’s different people sitting up here who have different ideas? I see that as a risk I’m not willing to take.”

The development plan for the land, currently privately owned by ACT, was assembled by developer Joe Clark and Nelson Development. It encompassed 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 included 41 single-family homes as well as a memory care complex. It would also have added 14 acres of land to the park itself.

The proposal had hit several snags en route to council consideration, including three attempts to gain approval from the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission. Most of the concerns 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.