City Council defers zoning vote following extensive petitions

BY KRISTEN EAST | MARCH 21, 2012 6:30 AM

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Though city officials received a slew of petitions against a new apartment-zoning ordinance, few showed up to defend those petitions at Tuesday's council meeting.

The Iowa City City Council on Tuesday night deferred the first consideration of a proposal targeting largely student housing near downtown Iowa City after city officials received a significant number of petitions.

The set of zoning amendments before the City Council calls for changing the definition of "household" as it now applies in the City Code. Approval of the zoning change would effectively reduce the number of unrelated persons living in one housing unit to a maximum of three in the University Impact Area — a series of zones close to campus.

City officials said this could affect University of Iowa students who typically occupy the four- and five-bedroom apartments near campus.

The city received more than 60 petitions against the proposal from local residents. However, there was little representation from opponents of the zoning changes at Tuesday's public hearing.

"It has occurred to me … I don't see anyone here who wants to live in a four- or five-bedroom apartment," said Iowa City resident Sally Bower.

Councilor Connie Champion said the zoning ordinance is a "rare decision" and urged residents to come back for the next meeting.

"I'm not against profit; I'm not against student housing," she said. "I am about neighborhoods, and I think it's imperative that we provide housing, whether it's for students, families … that we provide rental neighborhoods for all types."

Several members of the public acknowledged a lack of on-campus housing for UI students and contended that the university could do more to prevent high-density apartments downtown — such as additional student housing.

The UI built its last residence hall — Slater — in 1968. In September 2011, The Daily Iowan reported on the construction of a new residence hall, which isn't expected to be completed until the fall of 2014.

Casey Cook, the founder of the Iowa City-based Cook Appraisals LLC, said supporters of the zoning changes are wrongly basing their arguments on individual experiences with students.

"My concern is that this whole process, the zoning policy is going to be the result of anecdotal evidence because neighbors get students who weren't very well-behaved living next to them," he said. "What's actually an enforcement program, they think it's a zoning program."

Cook's firm conducted a recent study and found the vacancy rate for apartments within a mile of the Pentacrest is at less than 2 percent.

The proposed zoning changes would ultimately drive students into older neighborhoods farther from downtown, Cook said, leading to a rise in rental rates for the college demographic.

Senior city planner Robert Miklo said there isn't a certain number of signatures that determines whether a supermajority vote — a vote in which at least six of the seven city councilors must vote in favor — is necessary.

A supermajority vote will be required if petition signatures represent at least 20 percent of the property within 200 feet of the zone change, Miklo said.

City officials stopped accepting petitions after Tuesday's public hearing, and they have begun compiling the petitions. They will then determine whether the supermajority vote is necessary.

Councilors deferred the first consideration of the zoning ordinance to their next meeting, April 3.

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