The Versaland Rezoning Appeal

At the Board of Supervisors formal meeting last night we had quite a turnout.  The crowd overflowed into the lobby with citizens who had come to support or oppose a rezoning application.  A video posted on Facebook inspired a torrent of emails, and at least three voicemails, to flood my inbox over the weekend.  It is indeed inspiring to see passionate involvement in local governance.

The 26-minute video, created by Johnson County farmer and Versaland founder Grant Schultz, details the difficulties he has had in obtaining the zoning he wants, to accomplish his vision of Farm-scale Permaculture, a farm incubator, fishing pond, farmhand cabins and rental cabins on the acreage, part of which is in the village of Morse, northeast of Iowa City.  It is indeed a grand vision, one that, if realized, could offer a shining example of local, sustainable food production of the type I have advocated for for more than three decades.

In fact, the Board’s own Strategic Plan, and the Comprehensive Plan that is currently being developed, both advocate strongly for such endeavors.  New ordinances and zoning categories are in the process of being created that could be the solutions we are looking for.

Last night though, there were two major obstacles:

1.     There is not yet a zoning category that fits Mr. Schultz’s vision (though as stated above, we’re working on it).

2.     Mr. Schultz does not own the land.

Second obstacle first: Mr. Schultz has a purchase agreement in place with the current owners, Suzan Erem and E. Paul Durrenburger, from whom he has leased the land for some 4 years.  The agreement states that he must close the deal by the end of this year by providing some $934,000.  I truly hope that he succeeds, but right now he does not own it, and the owners oppose the rezoning.

Zoning categories are complicated and important articles of governance.  One need only look to the devastation in Houston to see what happens when they are not in place (Houston has no zoning ordinances nor building or fire codes). 

Every 10 years or so, Johnson County reviews what has been called its “Land Use Plan.”  The last time was 2008, and we are in the midst of the process now, on an even larger scale, creating a Comprehensive Plan of which land use is one part.  None of it is final yet, but it looks as though there will be two zoning categories for agri-tourism – essentially small scale and large scale – and I believe either one or both may fit Mr. Schultz’s needs.  Of course, we can’t be sure until they are final.  That said, the category he applied for does not fit.

The zoning designation he applied for, which was rejected by the Planning and Zoning Board 5-0, was Agricultural-Residential (AR).  He appealed that decision, which is what brought the issue before the Board of Supervisors last night.  The archived video of the hearing is here, and this issue begins at about 36:10.

An AR zoning on this land would solve some problems but create others, and the most concerning for me is what would happen to the land were it to no longer be in Mr. Schultz’s hands.  Any subsequent owner could quickly turn it into the sort of lily-pad development I campaigned against.  It also was inconsistent with the village plan of Morse (download a pdf of that plan here).  Those are the reasons I felt AR is not the right fit and that we ought to wait until the new zoning categories are in place, as well as until Mr. Schultz owns the land. 

With sadness, I voted to deny the application, as did all four of my colleagues.

Having said all this, I would like to address some factual errors and misinformation that is floating around out there.  Much of it is in Mr. Schultz’s video, and some of it has led people to assume facts not in evidence.  We’ll set aside the few hostile emails (which Mr. Schultz publicly condemned, BTW), as well as the one that laughably accuses us of taking bribes, because the preponderance of the correspondence we have received in support of Mr. Schultz have been both passionate and civil.

There were several emails, though, that took issue with me and with what they perceive as my lack of my support for local and sustainable agriculture.  If it weren’t for the fact that most of these people are from out of state and none of them know me, I might take it very personally.  The fact is I have spent my whole career, more than three decades, advocating for sustainable food.  I taught farm-to-table cooking at the New England Culinary Institute. In 1996, I founded and still own Devotay Restaurant and Bar, the first local food-centered restaurant in the county (and, I believe, in the state), which turns more than $230,000 back out into local farms and food sources every year.  I have served on the State of Iowa’s Food Policy Council and helped build NewBo City Market in Cedar Rapids.  I have written countless articles, online and in print, as well as two books, extolling the virtues of sustainable cuisine.  I am a founder of the local food advocacy organization Field to Family, I spent 7 years on the national Board of Directors of Slow Food USA, founded and published Edible Iowa River Valley magazine for 10 years, hosted a food podcast for 3 years, and got elected on a platform of supporting local food and not pouring concrete on farm land.  I will stack my local food bona fides up against anyone’s.

The issue is not whether I (or the County) do or don’t want Mr. Schultz to farm that land using the methods he and I both promote.  The issue is that as a government we ought not bend or break the law to suit one person, no matter how laudable their goals.  The First Amendment guarantees us the right to petition our government for redress of grievances.  It does not guarantee that the solutions will come as quickly as we might wish, if at all.  In fact, American democracy is an extremely sluggish form of government, and deliberately so.  I know that can often be frustrating – it sure is to me – but it serves a purpose. It helps to prevent rash decisions and unintended consequences.  It does not prevent decisions with which one or many of us may disagree.

On to some of the incorrect information in the video.

First of all, the video claims that the County has banned retail orchards. This is not true.  It also says, at another point, that there is a moratorium on retail orchards. This is mostly true, however it is for new retail orchards, while we craft an ordinance to replace the current outdated one – likely by the Spring of 2018.  “You-pick” farms are not involved and Mr. Schultz can invite you out to his pre-existing farm today to harvest his products if he wishes.

Second, aquaculture is indeed agriculture, both legally speaking in the state and county, and simply on its face.  Running a business of recreational fishing, and selling bait, requires rezoning and a conditional use permit.

Next, the video addresses concerns about a lack of responsiveness on the part of the Planning, Development, and Sustainability Department.  PDS records show frequent interactions with Mr. Schultz, in person, on the phone and via email.  The most recent in person contact, prior to the Zoning Board meeting, was 31 August.

Contrary to concerns in the video, Mr. Schultz was cautioned prior to his application about applying to rezone land he does not own.  Specifically, the day before he submitted his application, PDS Assistant Director Nate Mueller emailed him, stating:

“You are welcome to request the rezoning even though you are not currently the deed holder, but in our experience when that kind of request comes through and the deed holder is opposed to the change, the Supervisors take that very heavily into account.  I just want to make sure you’re aware of this potential issue before you commit $1400 to the application filing fee.”

Indeed, if you were a deed holder and your tenant attempted to rezone your land against your wishes, I expect you’d want your government to support you.  As I stated last night, my politics may lean pretty far to the left, but I still believe in property rights.

Many of the people who have sent emails are under the impression that the County has never required road improvements by developers.  This is far from true, in fact, it is quite common.  And the County has often entered into cost-sharing arrangements as well.

Lastly, about the Johnson County Historic Poor Farm.  The video states that the Poor Farm is exempted from county zoning ordinances.  This is almost true.  The reason it is not covered by county ordinances is that the Poor Farm land is fully within the city limits of Iowa City and is therefore covered by the city zoning ordinances, with which the county must comply just like everyone else in Iowa City.  Same way it did when the new Ambulance building was built, and same as it did when it recently drilled a new well at the Poor Farm. 

The presumption that the Board has somehow “stolen” Mr. Schultz’s idea for a farm incubator at the Poor Farm is absurd on its face.  I cannot speak for the other board members, but the first of many examples of farm incubator projects I have visited was the Intervale in Burlington, VT., in 1991 and again in 2003.  I can list many others.  Add to that the fact that Johnson County employs a Sustainability Coordinator, a Soil and Water Conservation Coordinator, and an entire Conservation Department, all of whom possess deep knowledge of the land and how to protect it.  It is not out of the bounds of reason to believe that it was their talents, along with the input of the Supervisors and the public at large through multiple public listening posts, that brought forth the proposals for the Poor Farm that the County is working to implement today.

Mr. Schultz has a wonderful vision for Versaland, but his is not the first, and it was not the source of inspiration for what the County is trying to do at the Historic Poor Farm.  Additionally, nothing the County eventually does or does not do there precludes or impedes his ambitions in any way.  There’s plenty of room for multiple farm incubators in Johnson County.

I want Versaland to succeed, but the law must be followed.  Some of the ordinances need to be updated or replaced, and that process continues, but we must wait until it has been completed, and until Mr. Schultz owns the land.  Then hopefully we can revisit and find a solution that pleases all concerned.