Orascom's Lee County facility

Orascom's Lee County facility

On April 7, three of the five Scott County Supervisors – Carol Earnhardt, Jim Hancock, and Tom Sunderbruch – approved a stunningly short-sighted change to the Scott County Comprehensive Land Use Plan (CLUP) that allows for spot zoning anywhere in the county’s unincorporated areas. Supervisors Diane Holst and Brinson Kinzer respected the community-at-large’s wishes and voted against the change in the spirit of true representation.

The county’s current Agricultural Preservation Zoning District prevents spot zoning – developments that don’t conform to the surrounding land use – on any agriculture property outside city limits. But the three supervisors provided the necessary votes to begin the approval process for a new zoning designation called an Industrial Floating Zone (IFZ) to skirt that protection. April 7’s vote was the first of three readings over the next four weeks that will change the CLUP to allow the county and Quad Cities First – the economic-development arm of the Quad Cities Chamber – to market prime farmland for a “megasite” (1,000 acres or more) to potential industrial operators.

The Iowa Economic Development Authority established 17 regional marketing groups – including Quad Cities First – to help attract industrial development to Iowa, and it’s offering marketing grants of up to $50,000 per project. The fund expires in November, so the pressure is on to get the IFZ passed before that deadline. (See RCReader.com/y/ifz1.)

The Greater Davenport Redevelopment Corporation – a partnership of Scott County, the City of Davenport, the Quad Cities Chamber, and MidAmerican Energy – owns and operates the Eastern Iowa Industrial Park, but it’s running out of sites to market, and none is large enough to qualify as a megasite. Ergo the Industrial Floating Zone, which by circumventing current protections for prime farmland will open up the entire unincorporated county to potential industrial development.

And this is precisely what makes the Industrial Floating Zone so egregious. Most counties and municipalities allocate specific acres of property for site certification as a megasite. Certification criteria demand that qualifying properties have infrastructure already in place. With the IFZ, this is not the case. It’s all up for negotiation, and no surrounding properties are protected from the intrusion, leaving an entire rural community economically insecure going forward. And county residents can bank on their tax dollars paying for necessary infrastructure as part of the incentives used to entice an industrial operation here.

Clearly the Planning & Zoning (P&Z) commissioners and the three supporting supervisors either don’t understand or just don’t care how they are disadvantaging the rural community. Property owners within the Agricultural Preservation Zoning District cannot sell for any purpose other than ag use, and soon industrial use, but nothing in between – including subdividing for an heir to build a house nearby. So Sunderbruch’s claim that “I am protecting individual rights” is ludicrous as he dictates to farmers and rural landowners that they may only sell their parcels based on the narrow interests of specific targeted buyers.

Before the supervisors cast their first votes for the IFZ on April 7, they each offered comments, several of which should be highlighted for the revealing mindsets underpinning their votes.

   

Earnhardt expressed frustration with the public’s thinking that the board’s decision to remove ag-preservation protection by establishing an Industrial Floating Zone was a “knee-jerk” reaction to losing the $1.3-billion Orascom fertilizer plant to Lee County. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” she said. The review process to change the CLUP didn’t come forward for another 27 months, she claimed, after much hard work by the P&Z Commission.

Well, not exactly. On April 3, 2013 – only 10 months after Orascom announced it was declining to site in Scott County – Planning & Development Director Tim Huey stated in an e-mail to P&Z member Clayton Lloyd: “Even though we continue to place a high priority on the preservation of prime farmland and protecting ag activity, it [CLUP] is not meant to exclude opportunities for an 800-pound economic-development gorilla.” Huey acknowledged to Lloyd in a later e-mail that his comments were prompted by the loss of Orascom.

Huey sent to the P& Z commission on June 14, 2013, a directive to review the CLUP. That’s not surprising, given that the supervisors openly lamented losing Orascom. So the wheels were quickly put in motion to not let a revenue opportunity of that size pass them by again because of the pesky ag-preservation district, which was the only thing that prevented that industrial “gorilla” from moving forward.

But before the IFZ could come before the Board of Supervisors, it had to go through the P&Z Commission. And it’s abundantly clear from the minutes of the commission’s June 18, 2013, meeting that amending language to allow for IFZs in the ag-preservation district was not acceptable to some members, who ultimately refused to support it.

Thus began a two-year-long campaign to systematically replace those members (as they stepped down or when they were up for re-appointment) with IFZ-friendly appointees such as Tony Knobbe (retired president of Quad Cities’ Wells Fargo Bank) and Dan Portes (chair of the Quad Cities Chamber’s political action committee). Once these supportive members were in place, the IFZ moved forward quickly. So Earnhardt’s revision of history is undone by the county’s own record.

Hancock demonstrated with his comments that he is a firm believer that two wrongs definitely make a right. He claimed that cities’ annexation of farmland was the “real culprit” for the disappearance of Scott County’s precious farmland. His logic suggested that if the cities can plow it under via annexation, the county can do the same for industrial development to increase its revenues. Hancock showed unequivocally that 28 years in elected office has morphed him from a representative of the people into an elected bureaucrat devoted to the county’s budget and increasing revenue no matter the long-term consequences – to Scott Countians but also arguably Iowa, the nation, and the world in terms of productive land to feed an ever-increasing population. “The best and fastest way to expand [the county’s income] is through the industrial tax base, and it’s got to be mega,” he said.

Hancock said that had the Orascom project moved forward in Scott County, it would have generated $11 million in new revenues – $7 million in increased property taxes and $4 million in utility taxes, calculated from the $1.3-billion capital investment on 318 acres. However, he neglected to mention the $348 million in taxpayer subsidies given to Orascom in the form of training funds and property-tax abatements and exemptions, or the $1.2 billion in tax-exempt Midwestern Disaster Area Bonds set aside for Iowa’s 2008 flood victims to rebuild (RCReader.com/y/ifz3). Lee County ranked 20th in harm done by the flood, yet it received $1.2 billion of the $2.6 billion set aside for Iowans and awarded it to Orascom to assist with its industrial project.

By the time Orascom actually gets a property-tax bill from the county, depreciation will erode a significant portion of that capital investment, lowering the assessed value and delivering a fraction of the increased revenues originally promised. Regardless, Hancock said, “government isn’t going to get cheaper tomorrow, so you [the public] should think about that.”

Hancock also claimed new businesses will spring up in support of a big industrial operation, especially due to lots of high-paying jobs, yet there is no longer evidence for that antiquated economic model. Where Orascom is being built in Wever, Iowa, the only new business is a BP gas station to service the trucks that frequent the plant. There is not even a new restaurant to serve the huge number of construction workers there for the past three years. Once the construction is finished in approximately two more years, the workforce will drop to approximately 160, many of whom already live in Wever (whose population is approaching 1,500). Most modern industrial plants are highly automated, and the promise of jobs is often grossly inflated.

Sunderbruch attempted to absolve himself for his support of compromising ag protection by assuring that eminent domain won’t be imposed on farmers. Of the 30 people who spoke in opposition during the March 24 public hearing on the IFZ, only one person mentioned eminent domain. Regardless, Sunderbruch has no authority to make that assurance. He also curiously quoted P&Z Commissioner Knobbe, who accurately said that “[agriculture] preservation and the general welfare of the county finds itself in conflict.” By most standards, voting to approve the IFZ only exacerbates that conflict.

Sunderbruch also acknowledged that “the reason [for approving the IFZ] is revenue. We at the county don’t make widgets and sell at a profit. We spend our citizens’ tax dollars and fees. When development such as Orascom comes, it means significant revenue for the county.” Translated, this means better buildings, better equipment, higher salaries, and better benefits for county employees, but these rarely directly benefit the taxpayers – even though it is our money that finances all these betterments.

Another problem with the IFZ is the potential legal challenges it faces if and when it’s used to site an industrial operation. The board was provided with a legal opinion from Assistant County Attorney Rob Cusack that warns of the difficulty of proving the legality of spot zoning, which is exactly what the IFZ is by definition. “Even if the rezoning is upheld at the district-court level,” he wrote, “an appeal can be filed. It can take over two years to get a decision on appeal. It is doubtful a developer would be willing to put a project on hold for that long depending on a favorable result from an appeals court. Winning a rezoning in court does the county absolutely no good if the developer moved its project somewhere else two years before the case was finally decided.”

Consistent with the perception of devolving politics today, Scott Countians have to ask: Where is the larger fiduciary responsibility to represent the directives from residents and taxpayers of Scott County, such as the 2008 countywide survey that tasked the county with protecting our agricultural land as one of its highest priorities? The approval of the IFZ represents only the narrow financial interests of the county, utility companies, the Quad Cities Chamber, and any industrial operator privileged to site on prime farmland – the best in the world no less.

Fortunately, Scott Countians can look to the two supervisors – Holst and Kinzer – who voted against the IFZ on behalf of the community. In notable contrast, and for the voters’ ledgers when future elections roll around, Holst demonstrated the depth of knowledge and understanding required of leaders in voting for such monumental change that impacts the quality of life countywide.

With respect to the more than 70 people who showed up for the March 24 public hearing on the IFZ – during which 30 residents spoke against the change and only two spoke for – Holst added her disapproval, explaining: “Farmland is disappearing everyday, which is all the more reason for us to protect what we have in the unincorporated areas of our county.” She affirmed that most Scott Countians fully comprehend the enormity of the responsibility to protect food production and water for future generations, “requiring sound policies to protect” our resources in the face of a growing world population.

Kinzer wisely suggested that the board and staff reach out to the community to find reasonable solutions for acceptable economic development. He emphasized that not one person opposed to the IFZ made comments against economic development in Scott County: “We just want to do it in the right way. We can do it together.”

In today’s economy, industrial development at any cost is poor leadership. Large industrial development is not the silver bullet it used to be. If the chamber and the county are truly interested in advocating for high-wage jobs and stimulating our local economy over the long term, they should seriously examine the plentiful evidence that supporting expansion for small- to medium-sized businesses provides the highest return on investment for public dollars, especially because local businesses keep a higher percentage of their dollars within the community, including employing locally with higher wages. (See RCReader.com/y/ifz4 and GoodJobsFirst.org, for starters.)

We need a new direction for economic-development stewardship that recognizes and values the unique assets that abound in Scott County and the larger Quad Cities area. We have the best soil on the planet. Creative minds, given the opportunity and resources, would find all manner of ways to capitalize on new markets and opportunities generated via a sharp focus on synergistic enterprises that complement what we already have. As Holst so eloquently said: “Agriculture accounts for a third of all the dollars that flow through Iowa. We should not be putting our farming industry at risk to chase another industry.”

For a March editorial on this topic, visit RCReader.com/y/ifz5.

Premium Content: