Lawmakers consider limiting urban sprawl on Iowa farmland

DES MOINES — A bill that would prohibit Iowa cities from annexing most farmland has cleared initial review in the Iowa House, but bill backers say it needs major adjustments and is unlikely to meet Friday’s deadline for committee action.

Kevin Kuhle, a lobbyist for the Iowa Farm Bureau, says the bill is the starting point for an important conversation.   “Our folks have some concerns regarding the annexation process,” he says. The bill deals with voluntary and involuntary annexation. That means it would prevent farmers who want the land to be annexed as they plan to sell it for development.

Gary Grant is a lobbyist for the City of Cedar Rapids.  “The sad fact of it is that our cities have always been surrounded by farmland,” he says “and sort of putting this permanent ring around cities seems to be something that I think might have unintended consequences.”

Representative Tom Jeneary, a Republican from Le Mars, says he hopes there’s some way to address farmers’ concerns. “I”m not against expansion or development,” he says, “but there’s only a finite number of flat, black dirt farmground in Iowa.”

The bill as currently written would bar cities from annexing farmland that’s rated at least 45 percent suitable for growing corn.

Representative Tedd Gassman, a Republican from Scarville supports some sort of action to limit urban and suburban sprawl, but he says the bill as currently written is not the final answer.  “They can’t put all those new houses out in a swamp, you know, so you’re going to have to have some decent land, anyway, to build houses on,” Gasman says.

According to the Iowa State University Extension Services, nearly four percent of prime Iowa farmland was taken out of production in the 35 year period between 1977 and 2012.