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A Good Plan to Steer Polk County Growth

Expand Developed Areas, Preserve Cropland


Des Moines Register

March 29, 2006

Note: Draft of Plan available at http:/

[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.]

It is estimated that Polk County will grow by anywhere from 115,000 to 170,000 people over the next 25 years, and much if not most of that growth will occur in the largely rural northern and eastern parts of the county. Nobody can predict what the county will look like when that growth occurs, but county officials have a pretty good idea what it should NOT look like:

Sprawl driven by leapfrog development that consumes prime farmland; roads congested because of a lack of long-range transportation planning; over-reliance on automobiles because of a failure to invest in mass transportation and pedestrian or biking alternatives; and environmental degradation because development causes pollution and erosion.

The county's strategy for avoiding those things is contained in a draft comprehensive plan, which would guide development in the county over the next 25 years.

It is an excellent piece of work that, if followed, could make the greater Des Moines area a more attractive place to live and work for all residents. It deserves support of county residents and adoption by the Board of Supervisors. It's not perfect in every detail, though, and Polk County residents who believe it can be improved should speak up now.

On Monday, the Polk County Zoning Commission voted to recommend that the board adopt the plan. If that happens, the next step would be for the county to put in place planning and zoning rules and regulations that put flesh on the plan's bones. If done properly, the plan will be not just a report in a bound volume but a process for the county to use as it regulates, and promotes, future growth.

Reduced to a set of planning principles, the plan would be "smart growth." Examples:

Agricultural land will be preserved by encouraging continued farming of the best cropland, while allowing development of less tillable land.

New residential and commercial development will be encouraged adjacent to existing cities and according to their building and infrastructure standards, or in clusters of houses, leaving green open spaces.

Transportation will include major bus or perhaps light-rail corridors to link residents to jobs without forcing everyone onto crowded highways. Alternatives, such as biking and walking, will be encouraged through a countywide network of trails and walkways.

Portions of the county are set aside for public use in parks, preserves and green spaces and trail systems. Wetlands, rivers and drainage systems will be protected with erosion controls.

Polk County, the authors of the plan note, is richly diverse, from "the revitalized urban core of Des Moines to vibrant small towns such as Grimes and Mitchellville, historic village centers like Berwick and Norwoodville, productive farm fields north and east of Ankeny, and wooded river valleys and lake shores." The county plan respects those diverse areas and would preserve them while recognizing the reality that new development will occur, and change will come with it.

The proposed comprehensive plan is a thoughtful approach to recognizing that reality.