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Too big, too fast

Some Solon area residents want to slow proposed growth Trail Ridge discussed at special council session

SOLON– They want Solon to stay Solon.
Locals shared their fears a proposed 130-acre residential subdivision would grow the town too quickly during a special city council meeting Feb. 10 dedicated to Trail Ridge Estates.
Jeff Geistkemper summed up the concerns of several Solon-area speakers.
His property on Solon’s west side would be annexed along with the development.
“We knew the day was coming when we may become annexed,” he said during the virtual meeting. “I just think this is too aggressive.”
Geistkemper questioned Trail Ridge’s overall impact on traffic, sewer and other infrastructure, as well as the developer’s desire to build most of the housing.
“I know a lot of people want to keep small town Solon small,” he said. “Slow growth is good, too.
“We are in a great situation for Solon,” he continued. “Everybody wants to live here, and we can control how we want it to grow.
“This is too big, too fast.”
City officials, however, made it clear the developer would pay its share of future infrastructure costs without an undue burden to existing homeowners, and indicated many details like traffic studies will come as the process moves along.
Council and Planning and Zoning (P&Z) Commission members have been discussing various concepts for Trail Ridge Estates since November, including at a joint session Jan. 14.
P&Z members voted to deny a formal application for annexation at a Jan. 26 meeting, noted City Administrator Cami Rasmussen.
“Predominantly everyone felt the density was too high,” P&Z Chair Dave Ranard reported.
The majority of P&Z members felt there were too many overall dwellings, he said. Only 32 percent of the proposed units are single-family, he added, while 67 percent are multi-family. P&Z members believed those percentages should be reversed, he added.
The P&Z also objected to the use of private drives and discussed concerns about traffic impacts, he said.
Although the application has been denied by P&Z, Ramsussen said the developer would like to move forward with council consideration.
Once annexation agreements are obtained with the necessary number of parties, she said, a resolution to accept the annexation application could be considered by city council members.
Four of five council members would need to vote in favor to override the P&Z decision, she added.
The property, located west of Oakland Cemetery on Highway 382, includes the Grace Greazel Estate and a small farmstead owned by Tom Greazel.
The Watts Group has proposed developing 131 acres into 114 single-family homes, 166 units of duplexes and 18 four-plexes over an estimated 15-year build out.
Trail Ridge Estates, when complete, would include approximately 252 total dwellings, with a possible population exceeding 1,000.
“Are we concerned with a development of this size at the school level?” asked Solon school board member Rick Jedlicka. “No, we’re not concerned, but do we pay attention? Absolutely.”
Jedlicka was present at the meeting to share the district’s response.
The Solon Community School District watches growth patterns all the time, but deals with a much larger footprint than the city limits, he noted.
The district adjusts its facilities plan to “make sure we keep up with what we see coming,” Jedlicka observed.
“The reality, as you all know, is this isn’t going to stop,” he said.
Two factors are driving growth, he continued– Solon’s geographic location and the school district.
“The perfect place to live,” he said. “You’re 10 or 11 miles from Iowa City, 15-20 miles from Cedar Rapids. People want to be here.”
The school board understands there may come a tipping point, but has taken steps to control growth and maintain a small-town feel, he said.
When the board voted to close open enrollment at most of its grade levels, he explained, it wasn’t trying to discourage families from entering children into Solon schools.
“We did that because we felt that the culture of our school had to be based on people that were part of our community,” he stated. “And if you didn’t live here, you really don’t buy in like those of us that have been here and are part of the community.”
The school district wants people to move here, and they are coming, he observed.
“We knew this would be the result,” he said.
Jedlicka said he had heard similar arguments against growth during his time as mayor and council member.
The city can’t stop growth, but he encouraged council members to capture and manage it as best they could.
“The revenue that you’re going to gain and having a more vibrant community will outweigh all that,” he added.
Whether the growth comes from Trail Ridge Estates or elsewhere within Solon, City Engineer Dave Schechinger noted the wastewater treatment plant is already showing its age and will have to be addressed.
Schechinger recapped the review process to date and outlined the capacities of the city’s water and wastewater utilities.
The wastewater treatment plant has a conservative capacity to serve 600 or so added residents, and as it nears those limits it will become less effective, he reported.
The city also understands the amount of traffic using the roadway will increase, he said, and has considered general transportation impacts. There will be more vehicles on Racine Avenue, Main Street and Highway 382 heading west, he noted.
The proposed development has the required two access points north and south off Highway 382, Schechinger said, and the section has a substantial right-of-way to allow for expansion if future studies indicate a turn lane would be warranted.
The city would look to reduce the speed limit, which is currently 55 miles per hour, he added.
Trail Ridge Estates has connections with the Johnson County trail system and has sidewalks throughout development, he said. The city would also seek to extend sidewalks along Highway 382 and connect them to the Old Mill Creek subdivision and Racine Avenue.
Patty Hansen, a new resident of Solon in Old Mill, suggested it would be awkward for all that traffic to negotiate Racine Avenue. Hansen said she had moved to Solon after renting a duplex in North Liberty, and although she liked the trails, it was too dense for her tastes.
To get to North Liberty from her house, she takes Racine past Lakeview Elementary, the middle school and high school.
“Unless I’m wrong, that’s the same route that all of those people are going to have to take too,” she said.
Solon resident Kevin Samek questioned how Trail Ridge would be able to utilize the water line being built to serve the rural Gallery Acres West subdivision. Construction of the water main has been mired in difficulties and is well behind schedule.
Mayor Steve Stange noted his expectation would be for the developer to be prepared to pay for the extension of city services, including the possible correction of an existing line.
“We’re not going to inherit a mess,” Stange vowed. “We’re not going to accept something that isn’t to our standards.”
Samek also questioned whether turn lanes would be needed right away.
Schechinger observed it would be similar to the intersection for Old Mill Creek, where there is a fair amount of turning traffic, but a slower speed limit.
“Higher speed does have more conflict with turning movement, so the speed limit will help with that,” he stated.
But until the issue of density is resolved, he said, the city doesn’t have good input for a traffic model.
Once a level of density is obtained, he said, a traffic study and other details like site distance can be addressed.
Brian Boelk of Axiom Consultants said the under the current proposal, Trail Ridge Estates would be constructed in six-to-nine phases, with the first phase beginning with the closest access points on both north and south side of Highway 382, then building south and west. About 65 total doors would be included in the first phase, an estimated 200-250 people.
Stange asked council members to be prepared to reach informal consensus on the proposal at the next regular meeting.