Hey policy, let's be reasonable

Starr's Cave Nature Center

As the head administrator of the conservation department, I deal with a lot of different forms of policy. Rules. Guidelines. Requirements. Lots of I’s to cross and T’s to dot. Where I get frustrated is when policy, or the implementation thereof, seems arbitrarily unreasonable. 

At top of mind is a situation with Starr’s Cave Nature Center. We’re planning to move our administration office there from our current location in West Burlington. Doing so requires some minor remodeling of existing rooms and putting up three walls to create new office space on the main floor opposite the offices that currently house our education staff. 

Here’s the kicker, though. We (the county) don’t actually own Starr’s Cave Park and Preserve or the nature center. The state does. Per our agreement with the state, we’re supposed to clear any major renovations with them ahead of time. The state isn’t going to give us any resources to make the improvements, mind you, but they retain ultimate approval authority. With some exceptions – the Flint River Trail being a major one, but that’s a story for another time – the state has mostly been fine with whatever we want to do there. Generally, our priorities are aligned in these things.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t hoops to jump through. In this current situation, they involve floodplain permitting. 

With the building’s proximity to Flint Creek, at least part of the main floor lies within the 100-year floodplain. Maybe. Possibly. Probably. Or at least we’re pretty sure. As such, the floodplain rules state that if the cost of a construction project on such a facility exceeds 50 percent of the building’s value, a permit is required. Or at least that’s how it was explained to me. 

Now here’s where the bureaucracy kicks in. Since the nature center is a public facility, there isn’t a standing assessed value on it. Hoop number one: figure out what the building should be worth. Good luck finding comparables for a 150-year-old barn turned tavern (it was the Sycamore Inn for a while before the state bought it) turned education center.

Hoop two: get a contractor’s estimate for the renovation work. With the exception of some minor electric work, we planned to do all the work ourselves. I had an estimate for the cost of materials, but we can’t afford to hire contractors. The whole idea was to do it on the cheap. 

Nope, not good enough. We have to get a qualified contractor to work up an estimate for work we won’t have them do. The state provided a two-page bulleted list of items they need to consider in their estimate. 

Hoop three: the floodplain division at the state is currently running on a 10-week backlog. 

I’m pretty sure that even if we chose gold handles for new office desks and tiled the office floors in marble, the cost of the project wouldn’t meet the 50 percent threshold. But government likes documentation almost as much as it likes inefficiency.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m a strong proponent of protecting floodplains. If you’re one of the regular readers of this column, you’ve almost certainly read my rants about keeping water on the landscape before it reaches, and floods, the major rivers. Looking at the piles of future floodwaters outside today, this is certainly top of mind.

And this week, my team and I will attend the annual county conservation employees conference at the Hyatt hotel and convention center right on the Iowa River in Coralville. This particular location was inundated in 2008 during one of the most catastrophic floods in Iowa’s history. Now there’s a whole plaza of new construction there. The irony of a conservation conference being held there is not lost on me.

Policies that prevent things from being built in floodplains, in principle, are exactly what we need. Every inch of water that’s blocked from its natural floodplain in Coralville, Des Moines, or Cedar Rapids, or even along Flint Creek here in Des Moines County, is that much more that’s sent rapidly farther downstream to communities on the Iowa, Skunk, Des Moines, and Mississippi Rivers to deal with. The result is an arms race of bigger levees and floodwalls and a demand for more FEMA funding when the force of mother nature simply proves too much for the less-resourced municipalities.

But in all policy, reason should prevail. In my particular instance, I’m not changing the footprint of the building. The main floor is already established office space for department staff. We’re just moving in two more people. The necessary renovation work is nearly insignificant compared to the total value of the building, whatever that may be. But policy and reason are like the two political parties. They have to exist in the same space, but they rarely get along.

People often ask me what I do at work. At times like this I want to tell them I answer emails, talk on the phone, and try not to bang my head on the wall too hard. But I know that in the not-too-distant future when I look out the door of my new nature center office and see kids having the time of their life connecting with the natural world around them, I’ll see what I actually do. And I’ll remember my personal policy of not losing sight of the big picture. 

And that seems pretty reasonable to me.  

This post is the monthly column I write for my local newspapers, hence the local spin. I write every month for The Hawk Eye, the Burlington Beacon, and the Des Moines County News.