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Opponents of High-rise Proposed for Downtown Iowa City Go to Court

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IOWA CITY, Iowa Opponents of a high-rise building proposed for downtown Iowa City, a project that has been the source of controversy for months, have taken their fight to court.

Iowa Coalition Against the Shadow, a citizen group formed during the debate over the project, filed a petition in Johnson County District Court Monday appealing the City Council's denial of the group's request to rezone the land where the building is to be located.

The rezoning application was an attempt to stop Marc Moen and the city from moving forward with a building up to 20 stories tall on city-owned land at the intersection of College and Gilbert streets.

The primary argument laid out in the court papers is the same one the group made at city meetings: The project would violate the city's comprehensive plan.

They say that plan calls for a transition between the intensity of the central business district downtown and surrounding residential neighborhoods, and at 20 stories high, Moen's building is not compatible with that.

Rockne Cole, co-chair of Iowa Coalition Against the Shadow and the only plaintiff individually named in the lawsuit, said in an interview that he does not believe the city has adequately laid out the criteria for what makes a transition zone and his group's legal action has meaning beyond just this one project.

"We think it's absolutely critical to define, especially, what constitutes a transitional zone," he said.

Moen could not be reached on his cell and work phones and did not immediately return an email message seeking comment Monday.

City Attorney Eleanor Dilkes said she could not answer specific questions until she had more time to review the petition. She said in an email that, generally, courts give a "strong presumption of validity" to zoning decisions made by a city council. That is, "if reasonable minds can differ the zoning action will be upheld," she wrote.

"In this case, I am confident that the decision of the City Council was a reasonable one that will be upheld by the courts," she said.

Moen has proposed a building, known at The Chauncey, with two movie theaters, a bowling alley, office space, a hotel and residential units. The city and Moen are the process of negotiating a development agreement.

Three members of Iowa Coalition Against the Shadow, including Cole, sought to have the site zoned in a way that allows buildings only up to 75 feet, thereby preventing Moen's building to go up as proposed.

The City Council rejected that request on a 5-2 vote last month. The city's Planning and Zoning Commission recommended against the rezoning by the same margin.

Moen's building, which would be 233 feet high, or 191 feet under a 16-story alternative being considered, also would require the land be rezoned, which city officials have said will be applied for at a later date.

In the three-count lawsuit, opponents argue that their rezoning application was denied because city "decision makers had already prejudged" the issue and decided to grant zoning that would support Moen's project. They say the council's decision was "arbitrary, discriminatory and constituted a denial of due process"

They also argue that approving the zoning needed for Moen's building would be illegal spot zoning in which a developer is given special privileges. They say granting zoning for Moen's building would be for his benefit and would violate the city's comprehensive plan.

Iowa City attorney Christopher Warnock is representing Iowa Coalition Against the Shadow free of charge. Cole, an attorney, also will help with the case.

"If we're unsuccessful in the district court, we will appeal to the (Iowa) Supreme Court," he said.

Mayor Matt Hayek, who voted with the council majority to enter into negotiations with Moen and to deny the rezoning application from project opponents, declined comment because of the pending litigation against the city.

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