Think tanks wrap up with good discussion

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By Audrey Posten and Rachel Mergen, North Iowa Times

The final two in a series of four “think tanks” meant to gather public input for updating Clayton County’s comprehensive plan were held last week in Elkader. At the meetings, attendees were asked to share their thoughts on goals, strategies and actions in areas like economic development, housing, transportation, public facilities, agriculture, natural resources and more.

Some of the goals are based on the county’s current plan, which dates back to 2002, said Michelle Barness, a regional planner with Upper Explorerland Regional Planning Commission who’s facilitated the process. Other goals are new, created with current county needs and values in mind.

Think tank feedback will be combined with survey data, research and other information collected through public meetings in the past year to develop a draft plan. That plan will then go to the comprehensive plan steering committee before being opened to public review. 

Barness stressed the plan’s contents are not yet final, and will continue to be edited over the next few months. The Clayton County Supervisors will consider it for approval in September or October.

At the June 26 think tank, the conversation first focused on transportation, then shifted to housing.

One transportation goal included improving and maintaining the capacity and condition of the county’s transportation system. Chief among that is strengthening existing infrastructure for safety and ease of access.

Attendees felt it was especially important to prioritize hard surfacing more roads. Doing so could bring more residents to the county, said Clayton County Development Group Executive Director Darla Kelchen.

“A good location, good view and a hard surfaced road—that’s where people want to build,” she noted.

Attendees also suggested widening shoulders or adding “safe lanes” on hard surface roads to better and more safely accommodate farm equipment and large trucks.

“As agriculture modernizes, they need a safe place to get around,” said Joleen Jansen, of Elkader. “In Clayton County, that’s important.”

This also ties into another comprehensive plan goal: encouraging alternative transportation modes such as trails and paths.

When re-doing roads, Kelchen said the county and other municipalities should plan with the future in mind.

“If we’re going to do trails and paths, we need to take advantage of those opportunities to widen the road to accommodate them,” she remarked.

As the conversation transitioned to housing, one of the biggest goals called for diversity in the type, density and location of housing within the county. Doing so would attract a variety of people—families, workers, seniors—to stay in or move to Clayton County, attendees believed.

Kelchen said one of the biggest problems is that many people lack the 20 percent down payment (an average $40,000) most banks currently require for a loan. Good private and public partnerships would be needed to build resources, she added.

Attendees agreed there is also a need to preserve and rehabilitate the county’s existing housing stock. 

Kelchen said the county currently has 150 to 200 jobs to fill, but workers can’t find local housing.

There’s also a shortage of homes in the $100,000 to $199,000 range, above Clayton County’s median income. Improving existing housing stock to those levels could help solve that problem.

Many people, though, are reluctant to improve their homes because it will raise property taxes. Attendees felt it would be important for the county to pursue an incentive that—for a window of time—wouldn’t raise property taxes for those who upgrade their homes. This would, in turn, be an incentive for people to make improvements.

When making improvements, attendees also said energy efficiency should be a priority.

The final think tank was held June 27, with people giving feedback on community facilities and services and public infrastructure and utilities.

For public infrastructure and utilities, goals were based around water safety, waste systems, recycling, telecommunications, utility systems, storm-water management and parks and recreation. 

A goal that stood out to attendees most was one based on the need for easier access to recycling opportunities. They wanted more pick-up locations, along with educational articles and fair booths explaining the importance of recycling.

Telecommunications was also huge, as the need for better cell phone and internet services is necessary, especially where easy communication can save lives in emergencies. The county does not have much ability to affect this on paper, but they can support advancement, along with the placement of cellphone towers. 

The attendees also noted the need to discourage development in the flood plain area.

The goals in the category of community facilities and services touched on intergovernmental coordination, maintenance, county and public facilities, emergency services, health care, dependent care and school systems.

The topic of active shooters in schools stirred up some controversy in the group, but, in the end, attendees understood and respected the importance of the topic. 

The attendees insisted that mental health had to be included in some way, as it was not listed anywhere on the draft—something Barness took note of. 

“Mental health needs to be its own point. It’s that important,” an attendee stated. 

The goal of the entire night, though, was not just to meet the requirements of the state within the county, but to go “above and beyond,” according to Barness. 

For projects the county doesn’t have complete control of, Barness said she and those creating the comprehensive plan want to ask the question, “How can the county be a partner?”

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