Cedar Rapids Mayor Clancey Hosts First Farm-City Forum Farmers and City Leaders Discuss Common Issues
By Judy Sheahan
Cedar Rapids Mayor Lee R. Clancey convened the first farm-city forum July 18 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The purpose of the meeting, sponsored by The U.S. Conference of Mayors and American Farmland Trust, was to establish a regional dialogue between urban and rural leaders to determine common areas of concern as well as potential solutions to pressing current problems.
The meeting brought together approximately 14 rural and urban leaders from all parts of Iowa including Iowa City Mayor Ernest Lehman, Iowa State Senator Andy McKean, and Linn County Commissioner Lu Barron. Cedar Rapids Mayor Clancey, serves as co-chair of the Conference of Mayor's Mayor's and Agricultural Leaders Task Force with Lincoln Mayor Don Wesely.
Opening the meeting, Mayor Clancey discussed the importance of bringing urban and rural leaders together. "By gaining a better understanding of each other's interests, it is our hope that we can move past identifying an issue as being simply a 'city issue' or a 'rural issue' but as issues that potentially could be worked on together for the benefit of the areas that we all represent."
After a presentation by Cedar Rapids planning director Jim Halverson, which provided an outline of some common problems between urban and rural land use issues, participants provided their own insight into the issues they were facing. The farming community expressed frustration with citizens who moved out to the rural area but who were seemingly unaware of the byproducts of living in that type of community. Farmers face increasing complaints and potential liability over such issues as noxious odors, spraying, slow-moving farm traffic, and safety hazards from the increased traffic and people.
The farmers also expressed concern over the additional highways and road improvements being planned for their area, saying that these types of improvements promoted rural housing developments that contributed to the sprawl issue.
The farming interests told participants about the tremendous amount of pressure they face from developers who are willing to pay them large sums of money for their property. An agricultural producer said that he was offered over $12,000 per acre for land that was worth only $2,000 as farmland. Ed Thompson of American Farmland Trust said that in Maryland, farmers are compensated for the development rights for their land through funds raised by the state and the private sector. Unfortunately, Iowa's economy has been hurt by the farming crisis and may not have the necessary funds to establish a similar program.
The cities present outlined their concern in not being allowed to grow appropriately. Due to lack of zoning laws in 25 of the 99 counties in Iowa and no standardized building codes, the cities find themselves at a competitive disadvantage with the counties because these minimum standards add costs to build in the city.
"We can't control growth outside cities," said Iowa City Mayor Ernest Lehman, "we need help from the counties to promote sensible development.", The more stringent cities become in our building codes, the more we encourage development to cheaper areas.
The cities also face the additional costs associated with certain environmental issues such as having to replace old septic systems in the surrounding counties with their own water and wastewater infrastructure in order to protect the city's water supply. Currently, the cost for this replacement is passed on to the city taxpayers but at no cost to the original developer.
All the participants agreed that comprehensive land use plans that would include the city, county, and agricultural interests along with the Department of Transportation would be very beneficial to more efficiently use tax dollars and land resources. The participants agreed that proper zoning and standardized building codes in the counties would be useful and allow cities to compete on a more level playing field. The issue of agricultural exemptions for building codes, it was also agreed, should be allowed only on working farms. The issue of streamlining the tax codes also was raised as a potential tool so that property could be taxed for its true value to discourage the mothballing of sites within cities to allow them to be developed. And finally, it was agreed that an increase in communication between all of these groups would help promote understanding of issues and minimize misunderstandings.