Living in Society

Sprawl is Coming Our Way

View of Trail Ridge Estates on Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021.

It was two weeks before the local newspaper published an explanation of heavy equipment activity on a 130-acre farm field off Highway 382. On Sept. 15, the Watts Group received unanimous approval of a developer’s agreement and preliminary plat from the Solon City Council. The city annexed the area and approved residential zoning this summer, according to Margaret Stevens, editor of the Solon Economist.

The population of the City of Solon grew from 2,037 in 2010 to 3,018 in the 2020 U.S. Census. The new subdivision proposed 220 parcels and 2.43 people lived in an average American household during the Census. Trail Ridge Estates, as it is called, will add population of roughly 535 people once it is built out. I expect the subdivision to be built out quickly.

The farmer who previously owned the field grew commodity crops, mostly corn and soybeans. That agricultural production won’t be missed. The challenge of building rural subdivisions like Trail Ridge Estates is they presume residents will drive for jobs, provisions, church, school and social activities. They further the culture of automobiles.

There will be a multi-use concrete pad installed for basketball and possibly pickle ball, according to the plans. There will be a fenced dog park. The subdivision has access to the state park trail from which I took the photo. Children could conceivably walk to school along the trail, but I predict busing and individual vehicles will provide most of that transportation.

I believe people will spend more time indoors and build generously-sized homes to accommodate indoor activities. Two and three car garages will be popular. The parcels could average about a half acre, which is plenty of room for a vegetable garden. Whatever sociologists call the current pattern of “nesting,” there would be lots of that going on.

The point of describing this subdivision is to say old-style urban sprawl is ongoing. While larger cities slowly work toward sustainable buildings, in rural cities, old-style, inefficient housing continues to be built. There is clearly a market for it. The amenities of a well-maintained K-12 school infrastructure, three churches, a large sports and recreation complex, and proximity to Big Ten sports, an airport, and diverse shopping make it attractive to certain types of young conservative couples. With relatively low gasoline prices ($3.09 per gallon today), commuting for work to Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, the Quad-Cities, and even to Des Moines is affordable if one can tolerate the windshield time.

The area is turning from Democratic to Republican as it grows. That’s true of Iowa’s Democratic enclaves more generally. There is a culture of civic engagement in which people do not discuss party politics, even if it is constantly in the news that comes in from Cedar Rapids, cable television, radio, and beyond. Plenty of Democrats, Republicans, and No-Party voters work side-by-side in organizations that support a variety of social engagement activities. Politics is considered something to discuss only with family and like-minded others. We’ve become insular in our politics and that reinforces a culture that gives rise to urban sprawl like Trail Ridge Estates.

Among the causes to which I dedicate my time, urban sprawl is low on my list of priorities. If farm field owners insist on growing commodity crops and livestock, then one farm more or less doesn’t matter. The better question is whether lives lived in insulated islands like this are worth living. One assumes people who pay a quarter million dollars and more for a home on half an acre would say they are. I guess that’s the reality we have to accept before social change is made.

Like many, I don’t like the build-out of the area to which we moved in 1993. It wasn’t inevitable although the growth is welcomed by the city. The three convenience stores in town do a booming business. The local grocery store has made it thus far, despite big box store competition nearby. We have a vibrant restaurant scene and there are loads of school-related activities. The Catholic and Methodist churches have little risk of consolidation. The annual town festival turns out hundreds of people to watch the parade and hay bale toss.

With the cultural life of Iowa deteriorating under Republican leadership, I know few who would seek out this new subdivision. Maybe I’m just out of touch with that segment of society. As I adjust to post-pandemic life, assuming the pandemic will eventually end, I’ll have to work harder to stay engaged with diverse people. In the meanwhile, observing new construction is an activity as old as human civilization and I’m there for it.

Observing updates in the new subdivision gives me a reason to take my daily exercise walking to town. It’s a longer walk, although sometimes I need that.