JEWEL AVENUE: IN THE ZONE
The Henry County Planning and Zoning Board met on March 12 with two items on the agenda: 1) multiple road segment adandonments, and: 2) consideration of a proposed Jewel Avenue sealcoat road project. This is a proposal that was initiated by private citizens and has apparently been 'adopted' by the county in spite of never having been formally acted upon by the supervisors. (Mr. Belzer has stated that "as of yet we do not have an agreement"). In fact there seems to not even be a written proposal.
A reading of the county zoning ordinance (available on the County website or in person at the courthouse) informs us that there are no stated county zoning regulations or standards with regard to roads. IDOT regulations seem to be controlling in this regard. (Mr. Belzer has stated regarding any county roadwork, "we will do this in accordance with the state of Iowa.".
To begin the Jewel Avenue discussion at the zoning meeting engineer Belzer stated that "...we are changing from a non-paved to a paved road and we are looking for your input." There followed much input by Mr. Belzer, Mr. Buffington, myself and another concerned citizen. There was also a great deal of questioning directed at Mr. Belzer, and the offering of many opinions.
The questions and opinions were mostly centered on possible costs and benefits of the proposed project, possible economic benefits to the county, and possible end-time scenarios that could occur at the conclusion of the described five year "test period" for the project. Input from citizens centered around concerns about likely costs to the county in doing the project (which has been consistently characterized as bearing no cost to the county); lack of a compelling "public purpose" in the envisioned project (Mr. Richard has stated publicly that there is no prospect for development along the road in the near term); and the idea that private wishes and private money should not guide the direction of public road development.
The importance of the discussion and questioning that took place was unfortunately clouded by one sure 'fact-of-the-matter' which is this: that there were no written project plans or any clear analysis of costs that may be incurred by the county during the life of the proposed project presented. Indeed, no particulars of the proposed project were ever made clear. Rather multiple scenarios were offered. Any clarity that might have been provided by the entities who brought the proposal to the supervisors was unavailable as they were not present.
So, in the end the commission was left with a bushel basket of hypotheticals to work with and a near total absence of any facts beyond the knowledge that some person or persons has envisioned a seal coated surface for Jewel Avenue and that the county has been asked to partner in doing proposed project..
Working with this fact base the commission approved a motion "to recommend to the board of supervisors to continue to explore this Jewel Avenue paving proposal....".
I feel there is a substantial risk to county taxpayers in the commission basing it's motion on so many hypotheticals and so few facts.
But there is a larger problem with all this. That problem is that the Zoning Commission probably exceeded it's legal mandate in making a recommendation to the supervisors. The mandate of zoning commissions is clearly stated in Title 9 Code of Iowa at 338.5: "the board of supervisors shall appoint a commission.....known as the county zoning commission, to recommend the boundaries of the various original districts, and appropriate regulations and restrictions to be enforced therein." That's it.
Additionally, the county zoning ordinance (available for perusal on the Henry County website) nowhere speaks to regulation or restriction of roads. There seems no reason that either road abandonments or road improvements should be brought before the commission.
The person (s) that brought the proposed project being absent, the County engineer was left to speak for the Jewel project. He summed up his goal toward the end of the public hearing in this way. "....all we're looking for tonight is "Does this (plan) fit within the city plan?'" (Presumably Mr. Belzer meant here 'county' rather than 'city'.)
Following the close of public hearing the commission Chairman asked Mr. Buffington "So what do we need to do on the rest of this, Joe?"
Mr. Buffington replied "We just need a recommendation......" - interrupted by Mr. Belzer who completed Mr. Buffington's sentence - ...." for or against putting a sealcoat road in this particular spot." (It is noted that this is far from the motion described earlier that was subsequently considered and passed.)
Mr. Belzer also stated a bit later in somewhat of a contradiction: "The question is does it fit in your zoning? Not do you want it or don't you want to do it....". Yet this is the very question answered, by inference, in the motion passed by the commission.
If this is truly "the question" then there never was a need for all the discussing, questioning and opinion sharing that constituted the bulk of the zoning meeting. Again, this is so because there are no zoning regulations or restrictions concerning road projects or road abandonments in the Henry County zoning code.
I feel that what happened at the March 12th meeting was that the zoning commission was duped, one hopes hopefully unwittingly, into making an endorsement of the furtherance of the Jewel Avenue project. This, in my opinion, was an unfortunate overstepping of the commission mandate and one that will likely , for better or worse, become a part of any forthcoming decision making process regarding Jewel Avenue.
The proposed Jewel Avenue 'experimental test project' (Mr. Lindeen's coinage) is a matter that, as Mr. Belzer made clear to the commission, will ultimately need to be decided by our elected supervisors.
When that time comes we should all be happy to see members of the zoning commission come forward and present their opinions on Jewel Avenue to the supervisors as individual residents and taxpayers. It is unfortunate that they have already, wittingly or unwittingly, spoken in a way that will, no doubt, prejudice any discussions to come.
Finally, I share something that took place at the March 7th supervisors meeting. During a discussion with supervisor chairman See I happened to mention the then upcoming planning and zoning meeting. Even before I finished my sentence Mr. See felt compelled to say "Yeah, I didn't know about that." This may have been true yet it is hard to believe this would be so. I had already known about it for some time and, as it happened, the county engineer, directly accountable to the supervisors, was to be the principal speaker and petitioner during discussion the Jewel Avenue agenda item at the zoning commission.
Later in the same conversation I asked Mr. See if he could tell me how Jewel Avenue became a zoning issue and was presented with this answer: "No that was a surprise to me. I have no idea." Maybe so. But it seemed at the time and remains curious to me that the supervisors would be not have been made aware that their department head would be going before the zoning commission with regard to the proposed Jewel Avenue project.
In support of what I have written here I will be offering video copies of segments of the P&Z meeting and the March 7th meeting of the supervisors to all members of the planning and zoning board. Interested parties might want to ask members to share them. Failing that I stand ready to provide limited copies of the same material to the public.