Iowa DOT working with land owners to find solutions to transportation problems

Covered bridePreparing for Iowa’s transportation future means understanding not only the present and future needs but also studying the past. At the Iowa Department of Transportation, our environmental unit within the Office of Location and Environment is staffed by experts in wetlands, endangered species, air quality, traffic noise/vibration, regulated materials, and historical and cultural resources.

Iowa has about 9,400 miles of state-managed roads and 4,100 bridges under our care. Many of these roads and bridges were built decades ago and are in need of repair and updating to meet the transportation needs of today and into the future. When a need is identified, our engineers study many options to solve the problem. They prepare alternatives that are studied from many angles, one of which is the impact of the project on the surrounding land.

Field review and discussion
Environmental specialists Mark Sloppy (left) and Chin-Ta Tsai discuss a project as part of a field study.

Environmental professionals conduct field studies on existing right of way and adjacent land on any given project to help determine what, if any, impact it may have on the surrounding landscape or individual landowners. Iowa DOT engineers and OLE staff then work to avoid and minimize those impacts to the extent possible.

Communication is the key element when our experts prepare their field studies. They work very hard to make sure the landowners are kept in the loop about the process and exactly what we are doing. Jon Rees, with the Iowa DOT’s environmental group, said, “We are all Iowans too, and we want to be neighborly. Our field staff will talk through the process with the landowner and answer any questions. When we are conducting field studies, we’ll do whatever we can to minimize any impacts to the property.”

Blanding's Turtle
The Blanding’s Turtle is just one of the threatened and endangered species the Iowa DOT looks for on a proposed project site

So what is Iowa DOT looking for? OLE team member Mark Sloppy says there are several federal and state guidelines they follow. “We are required to document any potential impacts to endangered plant or animal species, wetlands, or historic or cultural resources to name a few,” said Sloppy. “That could mean we’ll have several different Iowa DOT experts looking for these elements on a property over a period of time. Because of weather or the needs of the landowner, the studies might be done at different times of the year. One study might assess the historical significance of an old barn and others may be surveys of any streams, ponds, or other wetlands. We are required by law to avoid impacts to these resources if we can and to replace or mitigate for any resources we can’t avoid. To do that, we need to know what resources are on the property.”

Landowners are often the Iowa DOT’s best source of information about sites of historical significance on their land

Brennan Dolan, an Iowa DOT staff archaeologist, said, “Talking to the landowner can shed light on different aspects that we might need to look at. Sometimes the land has been in the same family for generations, so our strongest leads about the resources on the land come from the people who know it best. We work with the landowner to protect the resources as best we can, but still find a solution to the transportation problem we’re trying to solve.”

Dolan said, “Our goal is to establish a relationship with the landowner so that they feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and feelings. There are times when we can’t avoid impacts to a property, but we will always listen and do our best to find a solution that can work for everyone.”

The Iowa DOT has produced a video to explain the process to landowners:

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