Johnson County comprehensive plan proposal would stunt growth

By Casey Cook / Guest Opinion

While attending the League of Women Voters fo­rum for Johnson County supervisor candidates, I kept hearing the two incumbents express con­cerns about “sprawl” and “managing growth.”

Phrases like “managing growth” and “pre­venting sprawl” should be examined more close­ly. There are many property owners in the North Corridor whose land may sell for $6,000 per acre for mediocre farm ground but double that for 10- to 20-acre farms with a personal residence. For many older landowners, these “managed growth” policies will cost them half their family fortune. That’s tough to take if you have spent the last 40 years eking out a living on a 80-acre cattle farm.

We can protect the environmental integrity along the Iowa River without eviscerating the wealth of Johnson County landowners. The county’s pro­posed comprehensive plan precludes the development of 10-acre parcels for single-family residences and small truck farms that could potentially support the local foods movement. I don’t think 10-acre parcels represent a significant burden on county infrastructure, nor do they compromise our ability to preserve open space.

Enhancing open space is a premium concern in the proposed plan. Between federal lands around the reservoir, public lands owned by the University of Iowa and the extensive holdings of the Bur Oak Land Trust and Johnson County Conservation Board, we do not suffer from a lack of public lands in the North Corridor. If the open space is privately owned, those owners are far more likely to police the invasive species that customarily plague public open space.

Let’s be clear: Everything that has ever developed in the North Corridor has been planned for several generations. Growth has been focused in that area because heavily wooded land with significant slope is lousy farmland, but well-suited for the development of personal residences on relatively large parcels. This is not the uncon­trolled spread of urban development into neigh­boring regions – it is thoughtful planning that balances the needs and resources of the county and its landowners.

It would be one thing if the plan was a col­laborative effort between the supervisors and the 20-member Comprehensive Review Committee, which threatened to resign en masse after the su­pervisors ignored their recommendations. I would feel some confidence in the plan if the Johnson County Planning and Zoning Commission didn’t feel the need to attach a 25-point amendment of things that need fixing. But the fix was in and the incumbent supervisors are calling the shots.

So here is how you choke off any new construction in the North Corridor:

  • Stipulate that any new construction must have access to appropriate fire control (whatever “appropriate” means). If you are in the country, there is limited access to a fire depart­ment. No fire department means no new construction.
  • Require that access lanes be limited to 1,000 feet to en­able timely access for emergency vehicles – never mind the prior 10 miles it took to get there.
  • Be sure to include storm water management require­ments, a thorough environmental survey and bring in the state archaeologists. By the way, for a 40-acre farmstead split, which is state controlled, none of that is required.
  • If the three points above don’t kill construction, require a clustered development pattern of one-acre lots. (Hint: People don’t move to the North Corridor for a one-acre lot.)


This is not “managed growth” and it is not a thoughtful way of protecting open space. Put simply, it institutionalizes NIMBYism, where the backyard is all of Johnson County.

Casey Cook is the founder of Cook Appraisal. He served on the Iowa City Planning and Zoning Commission for nearly six years.