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Inside Iowa State, a newspaper for faculty and staff, is published by the Office of University Relations.

April 14, 2006

Tool maker for Iowa communities

by Teddi Barron

About 10 years ago, Gary Taylor decided to realign his career. Today the attorney-turned-extension-specialist couldn't be happier.

"I enjoy going to different communities around the state and seeing the new land use situations they face," said Taylor, a community and regional planning assistant professor and extension specialist. "Hopefully, what I'm doing out there is helping communities solve problems."

Gary Taylor

Gary Taylor has been an extension community and regional planning specialist since 2004. Photo by Bob Elbert.

Taylor helps regular folks become knowledgeable planning and zoning commissioners and board of adjustment members. Last year, Taylor and extension field specialist Alan Vandehaar taught the fundamentals of land use planning and development regulation to more than 600 people in 12 workshops around the state. Taylor also conducts research and develops tools that help guide counties and communities through decision-making processes about land use.

Through planning, county and city officials work to efficiently manage their infrastructure and transportation systems, find appropriate places for growth, and balance the environment and development. It's an increasingly complex process handled mostly by citizens.

Being proactive, making a difference

Taylor graduated in 1988 from the University of Nebraska College of Law and practiced law in Oregon for seven years. While litigating land use disputes, he became increasingly interested in the broader concept of planning and how it functions. He decided to return to school, and enrolled in Iowa State's graduate program in community and regional planning.

"I thought that if I had an opportunity to work on the proactive side of planning -- rather than litigating disputes that arise after the fact -- I could make more of a difference," he said.

Taylor's intent was to become a planner, not a faculty member or extension specialist.

"Simply being a student at ISU is what first made me even think about extension and outreach as a career. I saw [extension specialist] Stu Huntington's work with communities and the department's dedication to outreach through studio projects," Taylor said. "And I thought, that's a way to be proactive. That's how I can help communities direct their own future rather than just react to circumstances as they come."

Taylor completed his master of community and regional planning degree in 1996 and went to work as an associate planner in Wisconsin. In 1999, he joined the faculty at Michigan State University as extension state and local government specialist. When Huntington retired in 2004, Taylor returned to his alma mater.

Iowa has issues

In two short years on the job, Taylor has traveled the state, meeting planners, elected officials and citizens.

"There's a night-and-day difference between the land use issues found in two or three parts of the state and those issues found everywhere else," he said.

The growing metropolitan areas of Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, and the corridors of Des Moines-Ames and Cedar Rapids-Iowa City, face challenges very similar to those found in other metropolitan areas around the country. Managing growth, and providing housing choices and transportation options are common issues in America's urban areas.

"The challenge is working to make sure these cities are growing in a way that is sustainable over the long term," he said.

At the same time, many Iowa communities aren't growing. These communities are struggling with a shrinking population and an aging infrastructure.

"Leaders in these communities would be happy to see even a fraction of the growth like that in and around Des Moines," Taylor said. "Many of these communities aren't generating the growth and tax dollars necessary to repair the sewer lines and streets or fix up parks. They're asking how to take care of their city on a shrinking pool of dollars."

Even rural Iowa has land use issues. Taylor thinks the hog confinement debate is a land use and rural development issue. An exemption in the state's zoning law prevents zoning of farms, farm operations and farm buildings, including large animal confinements. So, the great majority of land in rural Iowa is exempt from zoning regulation.

"The effect is to discourage rural development except industrial ag production. It comes down to a public debate about the best course of action for our rural land in this state," Taylor said.

Developing tools

Taylor and his colleagues in extension and the community and regional planning department are developing tools, conducting research and creating new training that will help citizen planners and local officials deal with the planning challenges they face -- whether rural or urban.

With advice from county and city zoning officials, Taylor is developing a 12-hour training series that will be offered this fall in five locations. Participants will take a development proposal through the planning process, from start to finish.

"The proposal becomes the vehicle for presenting all of the training topics. As a result, participants are better able to relate the subjects to their own experiences," Taylor said.

Through a grant from 1000 Friends of Iowa and the Environ-mental Protection Agency, Taylor also is leading a Smart Growth audit of the zoning and subdivision codes for all municipalities in metropolitan Des Moines. He developed a checklist for planners, council members and city officials to use, to see if Smart Growth principles are being used.

Smart Growth is a set of 10 planning principles that includes mixing land uses, preserving farmland and open space, and creating choices in housing and transportation.

In another project, Taylor has teamed with Dave Plazak of the Center for Transportation Research and Education to look at the impact of residential and livestock production projects on the secondary road network in rural areas. Using data from Boone and Madison counties, they will develop a spreadsheet tool that can be used to assess the impact of proposed rural developments, and then train county engineers and zoning administrators to use it.

"It's one thing to do the research, the legwork and develop a tool," Taylor said. "It's another thing to take it to communities, show them how it works and see that the tool makes a difference. It's rewarding to hear that the tool you developed or the one-on-one assistance you provided helped a board of supervisors or city council make decisions about cases they would've had trouble with before."


"It's one thing to do the research, the legwork and develop a tool. It's another thing to take it to communities, show them how it works and see that the tool makes a difference."

Gary Taylor