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UPDATE: Urban sprawl gobbling up Iowa farmland

ANKENY — Urban expansion, at least in the few areas where Iowa cities are growing, is eating up some of the state’s best farmland.

Ankeny, a central Iowa suburb of Des Moines that a May U.S. Census Bureau report ranked as the nation’s fourth fastest-growing large city from July 2016 to July 2017, is a prime example. Much of the land being developed for housing is high quality soil for raising crops, an Iowa State University agronomy department survey shows.

Other growing communities in Iowa taking up former farmland include Clive and Urbandale in the Des Moines area and Robins, Tiffin and North Liberty in the Cedar Rapids-Iowa City corridor.

Most of the land included in Ankeny’s 2030 comprehensive plan scores in the high 70s or greater for Iowa State’s corn suitability rating, which is a measure from 5 to 100 of how well-suited soil is for corn production.

But as Ankeny has grown in population, from 18,482 in 1990 to an estimated 62,416 in 2017, its borders have expanded.

“Farming is not important to them,” LaVon Griffieon, 62, said about Ankeny city leaders. “In all of their zoning, they don’t have ag zoning at all.”

The Griffieons’ soil scores are almost at the top of the scale for suitability rating, and the neighboring subdivisions cover up soil of the same caliber. The land, Griffieon said, is “better than quality — as good as it gets.”

But city leaders feel they have nowhere else to grow at a time when people want to live in Ankeny.

“One of the unfortunate things is Ankeny is completely surrounded by agriculture, so the only place we really have to grow is into agricultural land,” Ankeny Mayor Gary Lorenz said.

The Griffieon family has been farming near Ankeny for more than a century, since 1902. They are among the last holdouts along Ankeny’s northern border; their land directly abuts a new housing development, which one of the Griffieons’ daughters moved into in February.

Anticipating growth

Iowa Code chapter 352 required every county in the state to establish a land use and preservation committee in 1984. The law also made each committee responsible for conducting a county land inventory and creating a land use plan. However, Iowa code does not require cities to make any such consideration for farmland.

The Sustainable Iowa Land Trust, a statewide nonprofit group that partners with farmers to protect farmland and promote sustainable production practices, helps seek conservation easements on farmland, Joseph Klingelhutz, a farm specialist with the group, said.

The conservation easement cuts the value of the land in half by placing restrictions on how the land can be used and farmed. The goal is to promote sustainable farming practices.

But Griffieon said the trust, known by its acronym, SILT, and the conservation easement don’t hold the solution to her family’s problem.

The Griffieons farm about 1,000 acres, 800 of which is owned by their family. They raise and direct-market antibiotic free, no-hormone-added beef, pork, chicken, turkey and lamb, in addition to growing corn, soybeans, oats and alfalfa. It can take a farm that large and diverse generations to implement sustainable practices like no-till or crop rotation that prevent soil erosion and promote water quality.

Other than the conservation easement, few protections exist for Iowa farmland.

Griffieon has watched Ankeny creep closer to her farm for more than 20 years, but said she could see the direction things were headed as early as the mid-1980s. It began, she said, with the city passing comprehensive plans for urban growth.

When she and her husband married in 1979, Ankeny was 3 miles from their house. Then, seemingly overnight, a subdivision sprang up out of ground that once grew corn and soybeans.

“We came home from a county fair and there was a house out in the middle of a field. We knew it was going to happen, but that was the beginning of it. That was probably 10 years ago,” Griffieon said.

Over time, more of Griffieon’s neighbors began to sell their land to developers, using the money, she said, to buy more land elsewhere. “People who trade their land will sell out for sprawl and they’ll buy next to an urban area like Fort Dodge that’ll be growing eventually so they can do it again,” Griffieon said.

A state development law allows cities to annex areas where 20 percent or less of the land is owned by parties not willing to annex. The rule is designed to keep city borders smooth and avoid unincorporated islands in the middles of cities.

In a voluntary annexation, pertinent landowners submit an application requesting annexation to the city that must be approved by the council. Involuntary annexations are not initiated the landowners, and less than 20 percent of the affected landowners are unwilling to annex. Involuntary annexations rarely are successful.

Lorenz said Ankeny has a significant amount of multi-family housing, but not everyone wants to live in an apartment complex or condominium. “We haven’t done any high-rises. We don’t dictate what type of building they (developers) are going to make,” Lorenz said.

For now, Griffieon remains a vocal advocate for farmland preservation as Ankeny continues to grow. Asked if she’s received offers to sell her land, or what she would do if Ankeny comes for her property, Griffieon wouldn’t say. She said she’s seen other landowners lose land after speculating without using caution.

“You can’t say things in anger,” she said, choosing her words carefully. “You’ve got to check your emotions at the door and just be very focused in everything you say.”

This story was produced by the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism-IowaWatch, a non-profit, online news website at that collaborates with news organizations to produce explanatory and investigative reporting.

Waterloo officer receives national award for work with youth

WATERLOO — A Waterloo police officer’s drive to help at-risk youth has landed national recognition.

On Friday, U.S. Attorney Peter Deegan, the top prosecutor for Iowa’s Northern District, bestowed the U.S. Department of Justice’s 2018 Enrique Camarena Award to Officer Justin Brandt during a brief ceremony in Waterloo City Council chambers.

“The substance of what he’s doing is certainly the type of thing that our community needs to take crime prevention to the next level,” Deegan said. “The passion with which Justin spoke about his work was the thing that was most impressive and left the biggest impression upon me.”

Brandt, who has been with the Waterloo Police Department for more than nine years, put together the Hail Mary Project, a program geared toward providing social support and alternatives for young people through sports.

Brandt grew up in Waterloo and graduated from West High School in 2002 and studied police science before joining the Army where he served in the infantry. Following his military service, he joined the Waterloo Police Department in 2009.

He said his interest in law enforcement came from watching the DARE officers — now called school resource officers — while in school.

“Those positive interactions with those guys, just how approachable they were in the school setting, that set the tone. I wanted to emulate that,” Brandt said. “Having that platform to help the helpless is really where it came from.”

The Hail Mary Project launched in February after years of brainstorming and planning. Brandt said he came up with the idea while encountering youths who were getting in trouble while he was working third-shift patrol.

“It was getting to the point where something is going on, and we didn’t know how to address it,” Brandt said.

He asked the teens what it would take to keep them out of trouble.

“The common narrative is there is nothing to do here. Not that it’s an excuse, but at least we get where they are coming from. So we had something to work with,” Brandt said.

The national award is named after Enrique “Kiki” Camarena, a Drug Enforcement Administration agent who was kidnapped, tortured and murdered in Mexico in 1985 while working undercover. It is granted to officers around the nation each year in conjunction with the Red Ribbon Week drug prevention campaign.

Otto Schoitz Foundation announces fall grant recipients

WATERLOO — The Otto Schoitz Foundation announced the award of $905,500 to organizations aligned with its mission of improving the health of the Cedar Valley. This announcement brings the total awards given by the Otto Schoitz Foundation since its inception in 2016 to just more than $3.4 million.

The Foundation’s top award of $200,000 goes toward improving the aesthetics and functionality of Waterloo’s Lincoln Park. Lincoln Park, established in 1854 as a primary downtown recreation and gathering place, annually hosts more than 100,000 visitors attending a wide variety of youth programs, festivals, religious and political gatherings and other events.

Improvements will include new lighting, walkways, seating, signage and interactive features, along with other updates.

Other projects funded by the Fall 2018 grant awards will impact an additional 28,000 citizens, with a focus on community betterment, education and development and health and human services including:

  • Amani Community Services will receive $32,750 to provide trauma groups for Amani clients with childhood trauma and health risk behaviors who will be referred to the groups and to smoking cessation programs and/or substance abuse treatment agencies.
  • Black Hawk County Health Department was awarded $51,000 for its project Bridging the Gap: Removing Barriers to Health Equity. Black Hawk County Health Department will commission a needs assessment and do an asset mapping of the Liberian and Congolese communities. Community Health Workers will receive culturally specific training to improve the health of these newcomers.
  • Covenant Foundation will receive $86,000 for the Covenant Medical Center Care-A-Van program, offering free and safe transportation to and from the health facilities to all patients in need of transportation.
  • EMBARC Ethnic Minorities of Burma Advocacy and Resource Center was granted $59,250 for Project REACH (Refugee Empowered Access to Community Health). REACH, an interpretation and community health worker social enterprise, bridges the gap in health care services for refugees by increasing accessto linguistic and culturally appropriate healthcare services and information in Waterloo.
  • Family YMCA of Black Hawk County was awarded $100,000 for Project EXPAND (Expanding Physical Activity and New Dimensions). The purpose of Project EXPAND is to provide greater support and education to people with disabilities to support their pursuit of a healthy lifestyle. Programming will build health literacy and fitness for both individuals and their caretakers.
  • Grout Museum District will receive $30,000 for the Youth Maker Exhibit Build, a collaborative project that strengthens adult/child mentorships, promotes volunteerism, inspires the study of the sciences, generates an interest in building and trades and creates a new exhibit for the Imaginarium.
  • Iowa Heartland Habitat for Humanity was granted $50,000 to serve 15 families through the affordable homeownership and critical home repair programs, specifically in two target Waterloo neighborhoods for revitalization projects.
  • Iowa Jobs for America’s Graduates will receive $15,000 for its programming to help students facing significant life challenges to overcome obstacles to success, graduate from high school and pursue post-secondary education, training or employment which leads to a living-wage job and economic self-sufficiency.
  • Iowa Legal Aid was awarded $20,000 for the Parent Representative Project, which provides direct assistance and supportive services to low-income custodial parents who are at risk of entering the juvenile court system through, or already have children involved in, a Child in Need of Assistance.
  • Jesse Cosby Center was granted $45,000 for its programming No One With Out A Home (NOWOAH) and Youth Empowerment Services (Y.E.S.). NOWOAH is a self-sufficiency program designed to serve 100 individuals and families; and Y.E.S. is an employment readiness program designed to service 75 to 100 youth in Black Hawk County.
  • North Star Community Services, Inc. was awarded $10,000 for its Inclusion Through Theater project, bringing together people with disabilities and community peers to create quality musical theater, and celebrating diversity and the impact of arts on the community and people with a wide range of abilities.
  • Pathways Behavioral Services, Inc. will purchase Naloxone kits and train first responders and community members to use these kits to stop opioid overdose with its award of $22,500.
  • SuccessLink was granted $20,000 to promote its Success Street operations, connecting students to health-related services directly within the school they attend.
  • The Salvation Army of Waterloo/Cedar Falls will receive $50,000 for its Emergency Housing Services. The Salvation Army provides shelter and care management to those facing the crisis of homelessness with the goal of addressing the physical, emotional, and mental health needs of residents, helping them return to sustainable and secure housing.
  • Tri-County Child and Family Development Council, Inc. will upgrade the playground infrastructures at two child development centers, Maywood and Lily, with its award of $99,000. Tri-County serves 890 children and their families within its Head and Early Head Start programs. Over 190 children from birth to age 4 are provided for at the Lily Ferguson and Maywood centers.
  • Waterloo Writing Project was awarded $15,000 to increase its capacity to serve as a creative sanctuary by providing program support, leadership development, and novel opportunities to youth. Waterloo Writing Project is focused on building the resiliency and communication capacity of the youth.

The Otto Schoitz Foundation’s Spring Grant cycle will open Nov. 19, accepting grant requests through Jan. 11. Qualifying organizations may apply for funding via the foundation’s online grant management system found on their website at