Bill would penalize landowners who sell property for public use

By: - February 10, 2022 6:31 pm

Kayakers enjoy Blue Heron Lake at Raccoon River Park in West Des Moines. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Proposed legislation that was advanced by an Iowa Senate subcommittee Thursday would limit the amount of money the state and its counties can pay for timber, pasture and cropland to use for public parks and other amenities.

Opponents of Senate Study Bill 3134 said it would diminish the ability of county conservation boards and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources to acquire land. That’s because residents would receive much less than market value for their land and would, in some cases, be precluded from state income tax relief that is normally tied to that loss of value.

Fred Long, president of the Iowa Conservation Alliance, opposed the bill and said people should be able to sell their land as they wish.

“This is the United States of America, a free country,” Long said during the Natural Resources and Environment subcommittee hearing.

The bill limits the DNR and counties to spending between 60% and 80% of the land’s value, as estimated by a biannual land value survey compiled by the REALTORS Land Institute — Iowa Chapter. The percentage is dictated by the quality of the land, with the highest quality commanding the steepest discount.

Kate Narveson, who said she owns farmland in Winneshiek County, wrote in an online comment about the bill: “One thing I care about is the quality of water and wildlife habitat in my area, and my husband and I have considered donating our land for conservation. This bill would take away our right to do so.”

Numerous other landowners, conservationists and county officials spoke against the bill, which is similar to a proposal in 2019 that would have severely restricted public lands acquisition and eliminated a tax credit for land donations. That bill did not make it out of the subcommittee.

More than 60 people submitted online comments against the bill.

Sen. Mike Klimesh, R-Spillville, who is not a member of the subcommittee, pushed back against the bill’s detractors.

“I heard a lot of folks talk about private property rights,” he said. “The way I understand the bill, it doesn’t affect the private property rights of an individual to sell their ground back to the county conservation boards or the DNR. What I haven’t heard in the conversation is the private property rights of an Iowa citizen who wishes to acquire ground who has to go up against organizations” with deeper pockets.

No lobbyist has declared support for the bill.

The Iowa Farm Bureau was the only group to speak publicly in favor of the 2019 bill, the Des Moines Register reported at the time. A spokesperson for the group did not immediately respond to a request to comment on the new legislation for this article.

It’s unclear when the bill might be considered by the Senate’s full Natural Resources and Environment Committee.

Committee member Sen. Claire Celsi, D-West Des Moines, who was not on the subcommittee, said: “We ought to be protecting Iowa land, water and everything else to do with it, not putting forward bills that will limit the rights of Iowans to put their land in conservation, should they so choose. … This is a misplaced intent, whatever it is. When I read it today, my mouth basically fell open.”

Rich Leopold, director of Polk County Conservation, did not attend the hearing but said such a law would severely damage the county’s efforts to set aside land for public use before it is developed as the Des Moines metro area grows.

“Many times, it’s farmers who have a legacy,” Leopold said. “He got it from his dad or his grandpa and doesn’t want to see it go into a strip mall or a housing development.”

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Jared Strong
Jared Strong

Senior reporter Jared Strong has written about Iowans and the important issues that affect them for more than 15 years, previously for the Carroll Times Herald and the Des Moines Register. His investigative work exposing police misconduct has notched several state and national awards. He is a longtime trustee of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, which fights for open records and open government. He is a lifelong Iowan and has lived mostly in rural western parts of the state.

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