Rod Sullivan, Supervisor, Johnson County, Iowa

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September 27, 2013

Sullivan’s Salvos     10/1/13

In this edition:

*North Liberty Book Talk 
*Poor Farm
*Did You Know?

*North Liberty Book Talk
         The UNESCO City of Literature organization is hosting another series of Book Talks, this time in the newly renovated North Liberty public library. The event will be Wednesday, October 2 from noon-1pm.

The list of Book Reviewers includes Mayor Tom Salm; local children’s author Dori Butler; State Representative Sally Stutsman; Assistant Hawkeye Wrestling Coach Luke Eustice; local publisher Steve Semken; and the North Liberty Leader’s Lori Lindner.

         The event is free and open to the public. Call 356-5245 for more info.

*Poor Farm
         Johnson County has been talking about redevelopment of the County Poor Farm for several decades now. Recent discussions lead me to believe that things may start happening there sooner rather than later. But first, some background:

         The county has owned this property since 1855. Every county had a poor farm; Johnson County’s is the last one standing. It originally had around 200 acres and now has 160, of which about 130 acres are still farmed. The property also includes land that is home to the Joint Emergency Communications Center (JECC) and Chatham Oaks, a residential care facility for people with mental illness. The property is now completely within the Iowa City city limits, and is completely bordered by houses on the south side.

The Poor Farm initially had two functions. One was as a residential facility for people living in poverty who would work the land in return for food and shelter on a temporary basis. There also was an asylum for the mentally ill, who were expected to work to the best of their abilities. The asylum building is already on the National Register of Historic Places; we have recently applied for this status for the whole farm.

         Unfortunately, the county allowed the buildings to fall into disrepair over the years. We are now faced with either paying to fix them up, or tearing them down altogether. It seems that the whole Board is in favor of preserving the buildings.

         This may be where our agreement ends, however.

         Most Supervisors have expressed interest in some type of a west side park. We do not necessarily agree as to what type of park, how large, county or city, and other details. One Supervisor talked about a Living History Farms-type of park; others feel that is unrealistic in terms of costs. But there appears to be support for some type of park. There also appears to be agreement on running a trail along an existing path from the southeast portion of the property up to the northwest.

         There has also been talk around using a portion of the property to support the local foods movement. We have had discussions with a couple of entities that are interested in doing some farming at this location. Each has a slightly different twist; I’m not certain there is agreement as to whom we’d like to work with and what we’d allow them to do.

         Supervisors have discussed keeping a portion of the ground in production agriculture. This can get complicated; the more land we commit to parks and other uses, the less likely someone will continue to farm it. It may simply become too much of a hassle. There may also be conflicts between groups who want to raise vegetables organically and a renter who applies chemicals.

We have discussed the possibility of selling off a portion of the farm for housing. At least one Supervisor has said no to this idea. Other Supervisors point out that selling off some residential lots would help fund the other plans for redevelopment.

Additionally, Supervisor Etheridge has expressed a desire to move most of County government to this location. That would undoubtedly squelch any plans for a park. Frankly, this plan would be prohibitively expensive, and I do not sense anyone else being supportive of that plan. It does, however, make it more difficult to find the three votes necessary to do anything else.

         So, you ask… Rod, what is your suggestion?

         *I think maintenance of the buildings is a must. I want to see them fixed up to historic standards and used. The buildings need to be surrounded by interpretive panels that explain the history of the place. This WILL cost money!

         *I want to see a portion of the ground (and perhaps some buildings) used in support of local foods. Whoever we contract with should provide jobs to people in need; that is in keeping with the history of the place.

         *I like the idea of some continued row crop farming, but the Board needs to understand that other commitments may make this economically unfeasible. If that is the case, we should convert the row crop ground to prairie.

         *I am in favor of significant housing development in the area. These would be attractive lots, much like the lots that surround Hickory Hill. By selling some lots, the County could help to fund the repair and maintenance of buildings, the building of a trail and restrooms, and set up a fund to support these efforts into the future. I don’t see a major difference between a 130-acre park and a 100-acre park. But the money that could be made from the sale of 30 acres would make a HUGE difference in the future of this place!

*Finally, and in my mind, most importantly, I think the County MUST seize this opportunity and create some low income housing as part of a housing mix. I firmly believe that the number one issue facing Johnson County is the lack of affordable housing. We have an opportunity here to help address our number one problem – we should not let it pass!

This area is within walking distance of Webber Elementary, which is a fairly low FRL school. City bus service already exists in the area. The housing that in this part of town is NOT diverse; we could assist with that. We should develop some of the land into housing for a very diverse mix of incomes, including people who are very poor.

My plan has not been discussed with the City of Iowa City. Even if I can get two additional Supervisors to agree with me, Iowa City could scuttle the idea. This is because as I noted earlier, the whole Poor Farm is within the Iowa City corporate limits. I hope this will not happen – as I noted, I believe affordable housing to be our number one challenge. Hopefully two more Supervisors and Iowa City will agree.

We talk about the Poor Farm, and our focus is always on the “Farm” part of the equation. I think we need to put more focus on the “Poor” part of the equation.

Our forefathers had a way, albeit crude, of housing the poorest among us. Over 150 years later, affordable housing is the number one problem in Johnson County. We should not lose sight of this.

I simply cannot support any type of redevelopment at the Poor Farm that does not include a healthy dose of low-income housing.

         So – what are YOUR thoughts? What should the Board do with the Johnson County Poor Farm?

*DID YOU KNOW?  Iowa City recently did an “Affordable Housing Market Analysis”, available here:

Anyone interested in learning more about County government should take a look at the County website-

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