Washington Evening Journal
111 North Marion Avenue
Washington, IA 52353
WASHINGTON — A consultant for Washington County told supervisors to aim higher than the legally-required 50% of land owner consent to pursue secondary road improvements in subdivisions close to Riverside, where traffic is expected to grow if further development is approved.
The assessment districts are established by Chapter 311 of Iowa Code. They allow landowners within a certain distance of any secondary road to propose a cost-sharing agreement with the county to improve that road, as long as those owners take on at least half the cost through assessments.
John Danos, the county’s legal counsel for bond issues, said it was by far the easiest path to pave 135th and 140th street.
"It’s a delightful statute from a local government perspective,“ he said. ”If you’re wanting to get private property owners volunteering in and agreeing to pay, I would stick with (it.) … it doesn’t get used that often, but that’s all right, that doesn’t make it bad.“
While the improvements must be proposed by a petition from at least half the homeowners in the assessed district, Danos said supervisors could amend the agreement after its proposal, but doing so would not give residents a chance to back out after amendments were made.
“What is surprising to me is that there isn’t some kind of counter or protest type of mechanism for the non-consenting property owners,” he said. “That’s the most surprising part of the statute.”
Still, Danos discouraged unilateral changes to petition plans, saying they could invite legal headaches.
“The further you stray from the parameters established in that initial petition, undoubtedly, the more you invite controversy,” he said. “One thing I’ve learned over the years with any kind of controversy related to special assessment, they are more than likely going to work out in favor of the property owners if it’s litigated.”
To minimize problems, Danos urged officials to seek more than the 50% threshold for resident petition signatures, the minimum required by law.
“I wouldn’t worry too much about the fine print details, and I’d worry more about, ‘What are the proposed improvements and do you have a group of property owners that are willing to sign the petition?’” he said at a work session Monday morning. “The more people you have coming in willingly, the less chance you have of somebody really being disgruntled and deciding that they want … judicial remedies.”
Board of Supervisors Chair Richard Young said that kind of broad agreement seemed unlikely.
“I’ve got a feeling, talking to some of them, that’s not going to happen,” he said.
The county has considerable discretion in the process. Danos said decision-makers could customize an assessment plan’s methods within reason, including measures that would evaluate based on square footage or number of parcels. Either approach would require Todd Hahn Construction, which owns around 30 undeveloped parcels on 135th street, to pay a sizable portion of the cost.
“The apportionment of the costs (among) the parcels involved, that’s where the engineers are going to have to roll up their sleeves and do some rational apportionment,” he said, citing the code’s broad limit of cost distribution staying “fair, just, equitable, and in proportion to the benefits” to land owners.
For all the flexibility Chapter 311 gives the county, the code has some limits. For one thing, assessments must be paid over 10-year terms, which takes long-term payback off the negotiation table, since assessments must be “payable in 10 equal installments,” or paid off all at once, according to the law.
Additionally, the county cannot assess property owners for ongoing costs. Danos said once the road was built, it became officials’ duty to maintain, as with any other public infrastructure.
“If you want to go through a new petition … every time you’re going to go back and do a new treatment on the road, and the property owners are willing, you certainly could do it that way,” he said. “I don’t read this as creating a rolling mechanism for maintenance types of expenditures.”