A good bet on Storm Lake

Our hats go off to the Millard family of Alta for working on an ambitious plan to develop some 32 acres immediately south of West Lake Estates for up to 60 housing lots. There is no question that Storm Lake needs more housing, and this is absolutely the best way to get it: a private developer trying to improve the community, and make a profit, without using state or federal tax credits or other extraordinary inducements.

Most of the new housing units within the city in recent years have been multi-family apartment complexes funded by low-income housing tax credits. We have become resigned to the fact that it is necessary to build these places for the working poor. Families and the community are made stronger by single-family dwellings owned by their residents. Owners who live on their property have more incentives to invest in their home, to become engaged in civic and government affairs and to get to know their neighborhoods.

Developing new homes at West Lake Estates should free up older single-family housing stock in town for first-time home buyers. It will provide work to local contractors, and higher revenues to the city in taxes and fees than multi-family complexes will.

The trick is finding up to 60 families interested in building a new home. Storm Lake has a growing blue-collar workforce, but demand for new homes in the middle- to upper-middle-class range is not as vigorous. That’s why we appreciate so much the risk that the Millards are taking, and the risks taken before by the late Chet Brecher, who developed West Lake Estates. He always wanted to develop what he called “the mule pasture,” which the Millards purchased from the Brecher family this winter. But he maintained that city development costs exceeded his ability to build homes that this market demands.

The city has taken a more flexible development approach in recent years as the housing shortage has intensified.

We trust that city hall will do everything in its capacity to help make this project work. We hope that the Millards can be put on a level playing field with developers who are exploiting multiple government programs to make their projects pencil out.

If the community can make the latest developments — including its own north of Storm Lake High School — fill up in the next couple years our housing shortage will abate. The multi-family complexes will come in time. It is the single-family developments that need special attention and care from the community. Let’s make sure this big gamble for a bold proposal pays off for the Millards.

Conservation funds imperiled

As ag officials tout federal and state initiatives to mitigate Iowa’s water quality pollution, the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee last week reported out a fiscal year 2017 bill that will cut funding for two programs crucial to the ag community going forward: the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) and the Conservation Security Program (CSP). This continues a long-running assault on conservation programs that reached its peak during the long-delayed farm bill debate of 2014.

Conservation programs and food stamps were the hang-ups that held up passing the 2012 farm bill by two years. The House demanded cuts in conservation and ag research while hoping to divorce food stamps from the farm bill — and thus destroy the urban-rural coalition that helped sustain farm programs despite falling rural population and clout.

Eventually the Senate forced the House into a compromise. The war against ag conservation took on a different front using the appropriations process and the government sequestration — required, indiscriminate cuts across all agencies except for spying, which followed the government shutdown led by the House — to strangle conservation programs. Their special target has always been the CSP, authored by former Senate Ag Committee Chairman Tom Harkin of Iowa. Last week the subcommittee voted to cut CSP by $300 million and EQIP by about $200 million (which includes a $98 million cut demanded by sequestration). The only Iowan on the panel, Rep. David Young, R-Van Meter, voted for the cuts. Presumably he got something for that support, such as an increase in funding for ag research. The question is whether it is worth it to the congressman when he represents Des Moines, which suffers the brunt of surface water pollution at the water works.

We have argued that the state does not need a huge ag water quality fund when federal programs exist to assist farmers to meet Iowa’s Voluntary Nutrient Reduction standards. House members are trying to gut those very programs. The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, growing thanks to row crops in Iowa and Illinois, is a federal issue not restricted to the states. It will keep on growing so long as the House insists on trashing 75 years of sound ag conservation policy.