Time to lessen zoning laws in rural Johnson County
Saturday, July 20, 2013
Beth Cody, Writers’ Group member
Iowa City Press-Citizen

The Johnson County Planning and Zoning Department got more than they planned when they called a meeting last week of local residents in the town of Sharon Center.
Sharon Center is an unincorporated town about five miles south of Iowa City, a cluster of roughly a dozen houses, a feed store, an electrician, an auto body repair shop and a welding shop. It’s surrounded by rural land mostly occupied by farmers (including the Amish), retired farmers and families who commute to work.

The purpose of the meeting was for the P&Z Department to sound out local residents about slightly loosening the zoning restrictions in Sharon Center. This has already been done in other areas of the county that have some existing development, such as Frytown and Sutliff, and is intended to partially assuage the anger of rural residents who must seek permission (which is often denied) to use their land the way they wish to: building a structure, starting a small business or dividing their land.

This anger was on display at the meeting, which was led by County Supervisor Janelle Rettig and P&Z Administrators Rick Dvorak and R.J. Moore:

  1. *There were repeated questions from suspicious residents who didn’t understand why the county was willing to make any development easier.
  2. *A man behind me muttered scornful comments under his breath in response to every sentence spoken by Moore during the first half of the meeting.
  3. *An Amish man quietly commented that the County sure didn’t make life easy for members of his community.

I can’t speak for all of my neighbors, but all I could feel was deep anger and resentment that these people have the right to tell us how to use our land in the first place. It was manifestly clear that these bureaucrats enjoyed the power over others that planning and zoning gives them; Moore actually announced to us enthusiastically that he “just loves planning” – planning other people’s business, obviously.

When I mentioned this rural resentment, we were impatiently lectured by Ms. Rettig on how she was actually protecting us from big, bad developers and the ghastly specter of “urban sprawl” that would do away with all the farmland and lead to mass starvation, she implied, mentioning rich doctors who would mow ten acres of lawn (horrors!). And just how would I like it if my neighbor decided to build an oil refinery on his land?

Well, I wouldn’t like it much, but do I really have the right to tell my neighbor how he can use his land? If his decisions damage the value of my land, I should be able to sue him (failing the usual old-fashioned method of directly working things out as reasonable neighbors), but his land is not my land.

Do people really own “their” land if they cannot do what they wish with it? Many Amish would like to divide their land to build another house for their children or elderly parents, but this is forbidden on parcels of less than 41 acres, as is building any kind of structure at all without bureaucratic permission.  

This reflects the increasingly unrealistic assumption that smaller parcels aren’t being used for agriculture. An acre of land that cost only $1,200 in 1990 now costs nearly $10,000. Organic farmers, who often grow vegetables on small plots, and Amish farmers who farm small holdings using horses are both unduly fettered by permitting requirements that don’t affect large agro-businesses.

It’s good that our overlords are trying to make things slightly easier in very limited areas. But I think the majority of the people attending the meeting the other night generally believe that all rural residents should have much greater freedom to build on or divide their land as they wish.

And having the freedom to decide how to use our own land means that we must allow our neighbors the same freedom.