March is Tim Huey’s last month walking a tightrope as chief enforcer of Scott County’s distinctive farmland preservation policies, while being a champion of Quad-City economic development.
He retires after 25 years as one of the region’s preeminent public planners from a job where he aggravated way more people than he pleased.
No Florida or Arizona winter homes in his future. The North Dakota native plans to stay involved in the community he helped shape by saying “no,” a lot more than “yes.”
His toughest lesson occurred when he tried to say “yes.”
In 2013, Huey guided elected officials as an Egyptian fertilizer firm courted Walcott area farmland owners for a $1.2 billion investment.
“It made me examine my ethics about when do you make a recommendation based on your best professional judgment, and when do you make a recommendation based on the desires and understanding of what your elected officials want,” he said.
Huey’s recommendation for the plan didn’t make it past the planning commission. The firm went elsewhere before supervisors could consider overruling the commission.
Now the Orascom project sprawls in Wever, Iowa, “a carbuncle on the landscape,” Huey said.
He believes Scott County was the winner in that episode. It galvanized Quad-City elected leaders, especially in Scott County, to plan for the next big proposal so elected leaders, not outside investors, would pick which farmland to pave over.
In Huey’s view, the development of Glen Keppy’s farmland for factories is the proof.
“It made us realize that you need to be ready for the 800-pound economic development gorilla. Overall, I’d say we are. As evidence, we landed both Heinz-Kraft and Sterilite located on prime Scott County farmland with hardly a peep out of anybody,” he said.
Most of Huey’s work is far from the limelight, navigating requests through a planning and zoning commission that rarely made news.
Until a state development official showed up with an Egyptian finance executive at his office May 24, 2013, as Huey prepared for a Memorial Day weekend vacation.
Huey set a public hearing for Orascom proposal, and, “for the next 22 days straight, it was a front page story. I’ve got ‘em all in here,” he said rummaging through folders of tear sheets.
“It was a real moral dilemma for me. In my heart of hearts, it didn’t meet our preservation policies by any means. But you don’t stay planning director for Scott County by telling a 2.5 billion-dollar investment to hit the road,” he said.
Clayton Lloyd, a mentor who became a colleague, said hindsight affirms his admiration for Huey’s leadership at the time.
“I was the only one who voted in support of Orascom,” said Lloyd, a planning and zoning commission member who had just retired after decades as Davenport’s planning director.
Lloyd was among those eager to find a way to accommodate the large investor. “I was hoping some of the questions raised in the hearing would have been addressed, eventually. But clearly there was a groundswell of opposition.
“It went away, and I’m glad it did,” Lloyd said.
He’s also glad Huey survived the tumult.
“Tim never presented himself as a champion of the project. He did have a positive staff recommendation. But it wasn’t Tim’s baby. He wasn’t the evil guy trying to push it. He was guy escorting it along,” Lloyd said.
That role was doubly tough as Huey surmised Orascom’s ultimate intentions.
“They were really just working Lee County for a better deal. A straw horse? Yeah, I figured that out. That was particularly frustrating, taking all the grief, doing all this work, then knowing it wasn’t going anywhere,” Huey said.
Virgin Islands job before grad school
Scott County supervisors hired Huey in 1996 from Rapids City, S.D., where he launched his planning career after completing his master’s degree coursework at the University of Illinois.
Before that, Huey said, he’d scrupulously avoided career commitments following his graduation from Jamestown University in his native North Dakota.
Upon graduation, he accepted a friend’s invitation for hotel work in the Virgin Islands. For two years, he worked at Bluebeard’s Castle and the Beachcomber, his first taste of tourism work that later would factor into his Scott County leadership.
Later, he covered University of Illinois sports as a United Press International stringer. His sister, Pam, was Champaign bureau chief.
He packed parts for a cousin selling Ritchie livestock watering equipment from a Minnesota farm. “That was probably an illegal homeowner occupation,” he said, something he regulated in Scott County.
Ultimately, he surrendered to his father’s push for graduate school. His father spent a career in economic development, much of it recruiting industrial development on reservations for the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Looking back, public service seemed inevitable.
Sister Pam later worked as Illinois Sen. Paul Simon’s deputy press secretary. A brother was a North Dakota assistant attorney general, with an office on the same statehouse floor their dad once worked.
Another sister is a Minneapolis area librarian.
While in Champaign, a plan to build a freeway through town fired up young Tim enough to speak up at a public hearing. “Why not a bypass, instead of tearing down houses in town?” he said.
That nudged him to inquire about University of Illinois grad school and launch a planning career that culminated in Scott County, but never in a graduate degree.
His thesis on “categorical exclusion to the requirement for an environmental impact statement,” is in basement boxes of floppy disks and papers.
It remains a regret, but not an obstacle.
He obtained planning, tourism and other certifications that will serve for the consulting work he aims for after retirement.
And he cherishes memories of the late Illinois professor Clyde Forrest Jr., who literally wrote the guidebook on tax increment financing districts. That 1980s innovation now seems a standard incentive for almost any development. It allows cities to grab a share of future property taxes from schools, counties and other taxing districts.
Now, Huey is a TIF enforcer. Last week he authored a letter to Riverdale, just like those he’s sent to Eldridge, Davenport and Bettendorf, strongly advising against using TIF for almost anything except creating jobs.
“I wrote 13 TIF plans in Rapids City,” 1988 to 1996, when the tactic was still new. “I figured out ways to push the envelope of what we can do with tax increment financing. When I got the job here, my job was to review TIFs from cities pushing the envelope. It’s kind of like working as a prosecutor, then getting a job as defense attorney.”
Regional development roles
Huey viewed championing the metro Quad Cities as part of his Scott County planning job.
• 25 years on the Quad-Cities Riverfront Council, including two terms as president;
• 24 years on the Quad-Cities Convention and Visitors Bureau, including two terms as chairman;
• Two terms as president of the Iowa County Planning and Zoning Officials Association and two terms on the Board of the Iowa State Association of Counties;
• 20 years as president of the Scott County Housing Council;
• 20 years on Partnership for Scott County Watersheds.
He’s also vice president of the Village Heights Neighborhood Association, where he and his wife, Sandy Doran, live.
He said appointed officials need to keep regional goals in the forefront.
“It’s natural each city is led by a mayor and city council elected by citizens of their jurisdiction and answer to constituents. Nobody represents Quad-City wide. There is no town named Quad. Even our senators and congressmen are from different sides of the river,” he said.
Every town or county’s development pitch relies on a regional labor force, transportation, financing and medical systems. “No single community here can go it alone,” he said.
When a proposal comes up for Scott County, Huey said supervisors for 30 years have agreed: Development goes to cities first, or in rural land that can easily be annexed.
That distinguishes Scott from all Iowa rural counties and most of the urban ones, too.
And it made for tough conversations with many farm owners.
“When I’m meeting with a long-time land owner, telling them they can’t sell two acres to a granddaughter who’s moving back to the Quad Cities, I pull out this book,” he said.
Huey has a compilation of Scott County’s 1882, 1894, 1905 and 1919 platted maps.
Many owners’ surnames, and parcels, remain the same today.
“I certainly understand people’s ties to farmlands, and their desire to have ownership of that land. But when I deal with families and heirs, I encourage them to find ways to divide value, not divide up the land. We need Scott County land to stay together in manageable, farmable parcels.”
That means unobstructed 40- and 80-acre parcels that accommodate commodity production, not five- or 10-acre vegetable operations.
It also means staying faithful to setbacks and other code provisions maintaining distance among rural buildings.
At his last Board of Adjustment meeting Feb. 24, Huey said “no,” to a home addition five feet closer to a neighbor’s lot than code allows.
Jamie Siefers filed the paperwork, provided drawings and asked commissioners to vote against Huey’s recommendation.
He lost, but felt compelled to speak out when he learned it was Huey’s last meeting.
“I’m kind of honored to be in on Tim’s last meeting,” said Siefer, whose Eldridge concrete firm has been subject to Huey’s inspectors for decades.
"He's always been fair and easy to work with. I can say that even when he turns me down."