After more than 50 years, Story County may finally be gaining traction with the Army Corps of Engineers to regain control over land that was once set aside for the creation of an Ames lake, a project that never happened.
The land, which is located between Ames and Story City, was acquired by the Corps in the 1960s during the construction of Interstate 35. At that time, the plan was to have the interstate run straight north between the two cities, according to Story County Supervisor Rick Sanders.
“Then the conversation about the Ames reservoir, Ames Lake, came up. So after they already acquired the original road bed to Interstate 35, they came back in and acquired a route that was further east,” Sanders said.
With the interstate moved to the east, the land was then available to construct Ames Lake, but that project never got off the ground, Sanders said.
“There were soil tests; there were citizen groups that came out against it. Story City was worried about flooding; for a multitude of reasons, Ames Lake never happened,” Sanders said.
Since that time, several developments have been constructed on the land, which remained in control of the Corps.
“Since the mid-1960s, the Corps of Engineers has held onto this strip of ground between Ames and Story City that really serves no purpose to the Corps of Engineers,” Sanders said.
With decades of local officials holding that same opinion, an ongoing effort has taken place since the 1970s to have the land returned to local control, Sanders said.
“It’s been a long, long, long process,” Sanders said.
That process nearly came to a conclusion in 2008 when U.S. Congressman Tom Latham inserted an amendment into a spending bill that required the Corps to return the land to Story County, with no charge to the county within 180 days.
That bill passed in 2008, but the land was never returned because the Corps said it didn’t have the funds available to do the required testing before the land could be returned.
A few years later, Sanders said the county offered to pay for the studies and testing that needed to be done since the Corps was unwilling to do so.
“We still want the ground for free, but we’ll pay all the transfer costs,” Sanders said.
At that time, Sanders said the Corps was unable to give the county a specific price for those costs.
“Since then, we’ve been in this dance of the Corps saying well it might cost you $100,000 or it might cost you $400,000,” Sanders said.
Sanders said that since that time, the county has been trying to negotiate with the Corps to get a specific price.
“And really, we’re getting nowhere,” Sanders said.
But all of that may be changing with new conversations that could lead to Story County once again controlling the land within the next few years.
“Just here recently, we’re starting to get some traction again and we’re starting to get some solidity with what the transfer will actually cost, what work we can do ourselves in house as part of that transfer and what work we have to either hire out or pay the Corps to do. So we feel like we’re finally getting near the end of this,” Sanders said.
To make that deal official, Story County Conservation Director Mike Cox, along with the Story County Attorney’s Office, is drafting a memorandum of understanding that will layout the specific details of the deal between the Corps and the county. Cox said he is currently working through those negotiations now.
“Ultimately, our goal is to get that land controlled locally and then augment the Skunk River Greenbelt,” Cox said.
According to Cox, those augmentations would include public uses and natural resource protection.
To get to that point, Cox and others will negotiate the terms of the memorandum which will ultimately decide which entity is responsible for which parts of the transfer process.
“What we’re negotiating with this M.O.U. is who does that work and how do we get that work paid for,” Cox said.
Even though it is still early in the negotiations and the costs could change several times, the Corps is estimating that the total cost of the process could be roughly $190,000.
“What we are trying to do through this M.O.U. is provide some ways to minimize that in order to meet the requirements and have as little local money go to that as possible,” Cox said.
That could include doing parts of the project using county workers, as well as simply negotiating for a lower price.
Cox said that he can’t say for sure how long this process will take but he’s hoping to have the land back into county control within the next few years.
Even though this process could still go on for some time, Cox said just being this close to the end is a very exciting step.
“Just being able to see the light at the end of the tunnel after this long process is wonderful,” Cox said.