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County Vision Calls for Sound Growth, Farmland Protection

Rox Laird

Des Moines Register

May 1, 2006

The issue: Rapid growth in the Des Moines metropolitan area prompted Polk County leaders to undertake an update of its comprehensive plan. Goals include providing guidance for land-use decisions, fostering growth and economic development and improving neighborhoods, housing and quality of life. Inevitably, though, competing interests clash. Disagreements have arisen over whether the plan will do enough to curb urban sprawl and preserve prime farmland. Alternatively, some rural landowners fear it could restrict their ability to develop their land. The Board of Supervisors is scheduled to vote on the plan on May 9.
Rebecca Holdridge, "Plan Ignores Citizen Input, Promises Sprawl"

[Note: This material is copyright by the Des Moines Register, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of the Des Moines Register.]

Cities grow and develop more by accident than by design. Public officials respond to the demands of landowners and developers rather than listen to city planners. But, as cities grow and rebuild, they can learn from their mistakes if leaders are willing to take the long view. Polk County, which is on the cusp of dramatic growth, has such an opportunity.

Polk County officials and citizens have spent the past two years thinking about what sort of community they would like to see as unincorporated areas of the county inevitably become more urban over the next 25 years. The product of those conversations is a comprehensive plan to guide county and city officials in the metropolitan area in managing that growth in a way that encourages sensible, environmentally sound development while preserving unique rural landscapes.

Think of Polk County as a 600-square-mile box with a third of it occupied by incorporated cities. Nearly 80 percent of the remaining two-thirds is agricultural land.

Most of the county is tabletop flat, leveled 14,000 years ago by the Iowa Lobe of the Wisconsin Glacier, which stopped a few miles north of the county's southern border. The landscape south and east of the glacial boundary is a Grant Wood picture of rolling fields and wooded glades. Some undeveloped regions of the county boast gorgeous natural features carved by the Des Moines River and its tributaries. The challenge for local leaders is to preserve that while accommodating growth.

The county is expected to grow by as much as 170,000 residents over the next 30 years. Most of that growth will occur in what is now rural land as cities expand their boundaries. Polk County is in a position to learn from what those communities did right and what they did wrong and to shape the development.

Among the mistakes to be avoided: urban sprawl that duplicates infrastructure at wasteful cost to all taxpayers; a transportation system that forces everyone to rely exclusively on automobiles; pollution of the air and water; and erosion of the soil.

If Polk County is faithful to the principles outlined in the 2030 comprehensive plan, those mistakes could be avoided. The plan goes before the Polk County Board of Supervisors for approval May 9.

Key principles:

Development of housing subdivisions and commercial areas should for the most part occur on the fringes of existing communities and use municipal construction and planning standards. Rural areas should be preserved as farmland and countryside, with the exception of some country estates that do not depend on extensions of public services. Natural habitats would be preserved in county and state parks.

Environmentally sensitive development would be encouraged by confining new housing in dense clusters, leaving large portions of land open. "Green" development would be encouraged to minimize erosion and impact on sewers and storm-drainage systems.

Transportation planning would include new roads to accommodate growth in automobile traffic. Yet the plan also calls for development of mass-transit corridors for buses, or perhaps light rail, that would move people between major population centers and jobs. The plan includes visions for trails and bikeways that encourage walking and biking rather than driving to every destination.

These are wise planning principles: Contain the dense urban development around cities; reserve the countryside and undisturbed natural areas for the enjoyment of all rather than paving over every square inch of the county; planning for inevitable traffic growth while working to minimize that growth.

The county two years ago created a new subdivision ordinance that requires new development outside of incorporated communities to match city standards. The county also put in place a process for extending sewers, by lending money when necessary. It also is working with communities to connect to metropolitan water and sewage-treatment systems to eliminate outdated systems and avoid duplication.

Some critics believe the county's plan would violate their right to use their land as they see fit. But living in an urban environment - or even on its fringes - means we all can't do whatever we want with our properties. We must live with certain restrictions. The process is done democratically, but not everyone wins, and the result should serve the best interests of the whole.

Polk County's proposed comprehensive plan is a wise and thoughtful approach to planning. It is just a beginning, though. The next step: The county should have a plan for acquiring property for public use and creating land trusts if necessary to protect rural land as farmers feel pressure to sell to developers.

Finally, the planning process should not stop at the county line. Development is spilling over into neighboring counties. Thus, the next step should be a regional plan that will apply smart-growth principles to other areas that the county's growth will affect.

Plan Ignores Citizen Input, Promotes Sprawl

Rebecca Holdridge

Des Moines Register

May 1, 2006

The Polk County comprehensive plan soon will be coming to a vote before the Board of Supervisors. It is imperative that all citizens of Polk County review this plan and let their voices be heard. It is responsible and necessary to plan for our county's future. But when citizens' input is requested, their input should be given credence.

The North Central Polk County Comprehensive Committee began this process a year ago. The goal was to work on a new comprehensive plan for how the county would be developed. As a volunteer, I attended every meeting and took the commitment seriously. At the initial meeting, committee members were told by a member of the Board of Supervisors and county officials that our work was very important and would be influential in planning for the future of Polk County. The process began with monthly meetings and homework.

Early on in the process, it became apparent that the meetings would be a controlled atmosphere. The facilitators followed an agenda with no time for discussions or interactions among committee members. We appeared to be figureheads there to make it look good. As a result, some members stopped attending the meetings. This also happened in the other regional groups.

Our group was very concerned about the housing plan and the Northeast Beltway. As cities continue urban sprawl, the inner city suffers neglect and lack of direction. Our committee was given proposed population figures up to the year 2030. We were to place the population where it could be accommodated. Since there was enough open land in the cities, our group put the growth within the cities. This is referred to as compact growth and infill. However, the new comprehensive plan does not reflect this compact-growth scenario. Instead, there are to be thousands of acres developed outside the cities, which is urban sprawl.

The Northeast Beltway is another issue where our committee made no decision, yet it continues to appear in the comprehensive plan. The current interstate system is adequate. There is no reason to build another system. There are better uses of our tax dollars by repairing and maintaining our current interstate, roads and bridges.

As committee meetings continued, it became evident that our input was not taken seriously. Nearing the completion of the final three meetings, I asked whether we were going to get to discuss our views and reasons among the committee members. I was told we would be all talked out by the time the process ended. As far as discussions and interactions between committee members, it never happened. Changes to be made by adding notes to maps at each meeting were ignored.

Three maps were sent to the Steering Committee after our final meeting. One of the maps that placed the potential growth within the cities had our committee's vote of 8-5. Yet the Steering Committee, which was to make the final decision, ignored this map and chose a map favored by city officials and developers. This city-driven map allows for urban sprawl outside cities' boundaries and continues to consume more rich agricultural land. Because of these factors, this Polk County comprehensive plan continues to be a disappointment to many of the committee members who invested time and hard work.

When the decision-making bodies are comprised of all business people, who are given directives by city officials and developers, citizens of Polk County are not served properly. The Board of Supervisors, as elected officials, should appoint a more representative committee, which will reflect the democratic process in America. Our faith in elected officials will then be restored.

Rebecca R. Holdridge lives near Ankeny.