Conservation Controversy

Roughly two or three times a year, an issue crosses our desks at the Board of Supervisors that draws some deep divisions.  Interestingly, the lines are usually drawn a little differently each time. People I disagree with on one issue are with me on the next, and vice versa, even though the other 95% of the time we seem to agree.  I suppose this is fairly normal in politics.

Such is the case with the recently-announced acquisition 132 acres of land near Big Grove, under the Johnson County Conservation Bond (Point of clarification: technically it will be 99 acres this calendar year and the other 33 late next year).

At first blush, it may seem odd that anyone would oppose preserving this land. No one denies its beauty, its biodiversity, nor the importance of the 100 acres of old-growth woodland.  As far as I understand, those opposed to creating this park (It will be more than a park, but please allow the shorthand) oppose it largely for three main reasons: 1) The process used to decide to acquire the land, 2) The presence of structures on the land, and 3) Who the current owner is.

Let me say before I dive in that there are those who made up their minds about this issue weeks and even months ago, often based on partial information (which I’ll talk about later), and I have no expectation of changing their minds.  When the subject first came up I was dubious as well, and the records will show that.  However, once I had a complete picture, I concluded that this was a great opportunity, even though we must be cautious in how we proceed.

And one last caveat: I had a reader of one of my recent posts describe my writing style as wordy and tedious, or words to that effect.  If you are such a person, I recommend stopping now.  I tend to strive for as much clarity and precision as I can, and for me that usually means a few more words.  I have no editors on staff.  But fear not, I tend to run out of gas around 2,000 words or so.

The land in question sits on 245th St. off of Sugar Bottom Road, in the North Corridor Development Area.  Johnson County Conservation issued a pamphlet (pdf) about the acquisition that includes the location on a map and several helpful images of the property.  You may recall that much of my campaign for Supervisor two years ago was centered on the NCDA and the need to rein in development there.  This land will now never see residential development (Yes, there is a house on the land – I’ll get to that).

First, The Process.

Since the Conservation Bond, initiated by Supervisor Rod Sullivan, passed 10 years ago, it has been used to acquire some 832 acres of land before this latest one.  Much of it is the most beautiful and sensitive in the county.  Each one was secured following the same process, which included executive or “closed” sessions, where the usual public access to the meeting is restricted.  These are all done under Iowa Code sec. 21.5(2)(a)-(l), which allows for restriction of the otherwise very open meetings laws, strictly for private personnel matters, or:

“To discuss the purchase or sale of particular real estate only where premature disclosure could be reasonably expected to increase the price the governmental body would have to pay for that property or reduce the price the governmental body would receive for that property. The minutes and the audio recording of a session closed under this paragraph shall be available for public examination when the transaction discussed is completed.”

This is the section of code under which all acquisitions under the Bond have been made.  It is done this way to protect the taxpayers because if a seller learns that the county is serious about an acquisition, it can affect negotiations and selling price.  Both the County Attorney’s office and Bob Josten, the Bond attorney who crafted the original Bond have stated that the process in this most recent acquisition was well within the confines of the Code section and the terms of the Bond.

Much of the controversy over this purchase erupted in early March, after some of the information was released to select members of the public.  This violation of the law led to a lot of opinions being formed on the basis of false or partial information, which is never good.  The person responsible for this ought to face the legal consequences. It makes no difference at all whether anyone believes these discussions ought to have been in closed session.  The fact remains that they were under closed session, and therefore the people involved are specifically enjoined not to discuss it publicly.

With all the talk swirling around this issue, especially on the social networks and in emails to all of us on the Board, you can be sure that I was sorely tempted discuss this sooner, but all I could do is tell people that I could not talk about anything that may or may not have been discussed in a closed session.  A closed session is like Fight Club: rule number one is you don’t talk about a closed session.  Someone who was in those meetings did so, though, including the release of pertinent documents.  I hope the County Attorney’s office will pursue this.  We are fortunate that the release did not scuttle the deal (as did happen on another recent occasion), but it did lead to a lot of public misunderstanding and knee-jerk reactions, and the resulting animosity is regrettable, to say the least.

The process of this acquisition was proper.

Second, the Structures.

There are several existing structures on the land, most notably a large round barn which had been used under a legal conditional use permit for no more than 12 events per year.  As I noted above, there is plenty of precedent for the acquisition of structures under the Bond (see: Ciha Fen and Pechman Creek Delta).  But it is important to note that these structures were not purchased by the Conservation Board.  They were donated by the owner, at an appraised value of $1.72 million.

Some of these structures were already controversial due to some neighbors’ (and others’) concerns about traffic and about the buildings being up to code.  The County Multiple Special Events Ordinance was amended at the time to say that such buildings could be used for such purposes if a licensed architect states they are safe for their intended use.  Both of the Supervisors who were then and are still on our Board, Rod Sullivan (who supported this new acquisition) and Janelle Rettig (who opposed it), voted in favor of that amendment.

This is one of the general aspects where I was and remain dubious.  While the County is already in the business of renting out facilities for weddings and other events, especially at Kent Park, I am not convinced that this would be the best use of these facilities now that County Conservation is in charge of them.  I will work hard to see that these buildings are steered towards environmental education, something along the lines of the Indian Creek Nature Center, which is privately administered, or Wikiup Hill, which Linn County Conservation runs.

Another aspect is the home that is on the land.  I believe it is Conservation’s intent to use it as offices or a kind of ranger station, however, I think those can be in other buildings and that the home should be sold off, hopefully to use those proceeds to help with the aforementioned nature center. 

I am unsure what power I have to influence such decisions, but I will try.

The existing local food production on the land is exciting and will work to see it continue, even expand if that’s possible, and to see it be a part of the environmental education as well.

As for the structures’ safety and being up to code for any public uses, I will defer to engineers and architects and am confident that County Conservation and all stakeholders will proceed within the bounds of the laws regarding public safety.

Third, the Seller.

The owners who sold the land are Katherine Burford and Dick Schwab.  It should be stated up front that a number of my political allies during my campaign are no friends of Mr. Schwab, and a portion of them, at least, are opposed to this acquisition due in no small part to that animosity.  Sometimes, something that begins as a disagreement between neighbors can escalate into an interminable Hatfield & McCoy situation where no party can ever do right in the eyes of the other.  That is unfortunate, and I wish I knew how to undo it, but it is, as they say, what it is.

Mr. Schwab and Ms. Burford are active conservationists, despite how some may disagree with how they go about it.  They were very active in the passing of the Bond in the first place, in fact Mr. Schwab was co-chair of the committee to pass the Bond, alongside Ms. Rettig, who as I mentioned opposes this acquisition now.  Mr. Schwab and Ms. Burford are also very active members of the Bur Oak Land Trust.  In fact, they started it. (<<< Update: I have since learned that Mr. Schwab did not actually start Bur Oak - I was misinformed - but Barbara Beaumont has since informed me that it was actually Nancy Sieberling who started Bur Oak Land Trust. Mr. Schwab remains very active in it.) 

When this project was first introduced to the Board of Supervisors in December, during Budget talks, I was concerned about the appearance of a conflict of interests.  Should Mr. Schwab benefit from a County Bond initiative he helped create?  While the appearance of impropriety may remain the eyes of some, I do not believe any such actually exists.  I find it hard to imagine that 10 years ago Mr. Schwab was secretly twirling his mustache and plotting to unload property a decade hence.

Opponents have also cited a woodland mitigation agreement involving Mr. Schwab’s land on Highway 1 – which it should be noted is not the land being acquired here.  That mitigation was to have involved some 22 acres of the land that is being acquired here.  However, that agreement was never signed and thus was never in force. Yet even still, Mr. Schwab has submitted (and our Planning, Development and Sustainability Dept. has accepted) a new plan for that woodland mitigation.  A mistake in the past that is being rectified adequately.

Others have alleged that this is a golden parachute of some type because Mr. Schwab and Ms. Burford are preparing to retire to Wisconsin and this will supposedly “make them rich at taxpayers’ expense.”  But they are already wealthy by any objective measure, and could very likely have pursued a different course, one that did not include donating all the buildings, and potentially have made even more money.  Down the road, with a different Board of Supervisors (because I doubt the current one would approve such a thing), this land may well have become a subdivision.  Now, that will never happen.

In Conclusion

In the aforementioned PDF put out by Conservation director Larry Gullett and his team, I would draw your particular attention to pages 7-8.  These lay out with specificity how and why this acquisition is a perfect fit for the County Conservation Bond.  It meets the six focal points of County Conservation’s strategic plan (also a pdf): protection, restoration, connections, water quality, partnerships, and sustainability, as well as all four criteria of the adopted prioritization of lands for inclusion in the public land system.

I congratulate the Conservation Board, Larry Gullett and his team and all the stakeholders involved on a job well done.

As I said, I know that there are those whose minds will not be swayed on this issue, and so be it.  But for those who are seeking details and reasons for why and how the land was acquired and why and how I reversed my initial stand and voted in favor of it, I hope this has been of some help, and that you will join with most of us on the Board who look forward to the great things to come from this land.

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