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Non-profit group seeks private development on lakes, reservoirs


If Saylorville Reservoir’s shoreline were dotted with private development similar to that found at the Lake of the Ozarks, imagine the drawing power that would have, says Doug Gross.

“From Saylorville, you can see downtown Des Moines, yet we allow no development around it,” he said. “People drive six hours to go to the Lake of the Ozarks, which is an Army Corps of Engineer reservoir. We’ve got (a reservoir) in our back yard and we don’t allow it to be developed in that fashion.”    A year ago, Iowa State University released a study, which the Des Moines attorney and former gubernatorial candidate funded using leftover campaign money, which analyzed reasons some rural Midwestern counties are growing while others aren’t. Gross also launched a non-profit think-tank known as the Committee of 82, named for the 82 Iowa counties that are considered rural.

“One correlation we found to growth was outdoor amenities, specifically, lakes, parks and bike trails at the state and local level,” he said. “We also looked at Army Corps of Engineer reservoirs. What we found is that if you put those things together, they generate an almost 1 percent income growth in your county beyond what you would otherwise have. Frankly, it’s even more powerful than the suburban effect. So it’s quite powerful, and we were surprised in seeing it.”

Now, Gross is finalizing a series of recommendations from that research, which he said will provide the basis for a new economic development lobbying organization that he recently formed. One focus of its efforts, he said, will be to push for the development of more man-made lakes in Iowa and for housing developments along existing public lakes, including reservoirs such as Saylorville that are operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“You don’t need to be totally privatized, but if you allow some private development along those, it’s going to be a real draw to attract people with income into your community,” Gross said. “I think the most powerful force for clean water would be people who actually live along our amenities. Look at Clear Lake and Lake Okoboji; you have very strong forces for clean waters in those communities.”

A good example of an existing private lake development project, Gross said, is Sun Valley Lake in Ringgold County, which is the fifth-fastest-growing county in the state. One-third of that county’s assessed property value is located around that lake, he said, and the county is now looking into building a second lake.

Developing around Corps of Engineer reservoirs would be problematic at best, however. Even if Congress were to authorize the Corps to approve private development on federal land, “it’s very rare that we’re going to allow private property to be built on federal land,” said Ron Fournier, a spokesman for the Corps’ Rock Island District, which encompasses Iowa. In some instances, it will lease land for public operations such as marinas, or for operations such as youth camps, Fournier said.

“But as far as businesses or private homes, that is not something that we are looking to entertain,” he said, because their presence would hamper the Corps’ ability to adjust the water level for flood control. “It would have to be for the benefit of the entire local community. But they do build (private residences) right up to our property line.” In some instances, that may give the appearance that homes are on federal land when the water level happens to be at its highest point, he said.    Gross isn’t the only one considering additional private development around lakes. Legislation awaiting the governor’s signature, House File 708, would allow counties with fewer than 20,000 residents to establish unincorporated areas around private lakes as rural improvement zones, which would qualify them for state economic development assistance. At least eight rural counties are in the process of considering building man-made lakes as a catalyst for housing growth.

Marshalltown has wanted to dam Clear Creek since the late 1980s, and by the mid-1990s an Iowa Department of Natural Resources feasibility study concluded that such a project could be a viable, said Ken Anderson, president of the Marshalltown Area Chamber of Commerce. The bulk of the property, however, is an ISU-owned research farm that the university isn’t currently interested in selling, he said.

“I think we’ve learned how important quality-of-life issues are as the Vision Iowa programs have come to pass,” he said. “And when you add water features into that with lakes and lakeshore developments, the impact even magnifies. That’s the reason for our interest.”

If other Iowa lake projects also move forward, that wouldn’t diminish the Clear Creek project, Anderson said.

“You have to look at location, location, location,” he said. “Clear Creek Lake would be located smack dab in the population center of the state. I don’t think one would diminish the importance of the other, and each would have its own character.”

Regardless of whether a recreational amenity is a lake, trail or park, the research indicates that size is a key factor, Gross said.    “The larger the amenity, the more powerful the economic impact,” he said. “And the impact isn’t just for the county; it’s regional. So it’s important for counties to work together and see if they can do things on a regional basis.”

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