Development plans for the busy intersection of Mills Civic Parkway and 60th Street in West Des Moines are back on track after being hung up for two years by the city’s rules on traffic counts.

The delay resulted in a lawsuit between businessmen Gary Kirke and Richard Hurd and brought attention to a West Des Moines planning policy that sets traffic count limits for all development projects. The policy establishes traffic standards for projects ranging from residential subdivisions to big commercial developments.

In one case, the policy was used to promise a property owner, Wells Fargo & Co., that traffic near its campus on Mills Civic and Jordan Creek parkways will not cause traffic delays for the financial services giant’s employees as they travel to and from work.

That promise, made in a development agreement approved by the West Des Moines City Council in 2003, is a source of aggravation to some developers, who believe their projects are limited in the amount of traffic they can generate in order to ease traffic congestion in front of Wells Fargo.

That just isn’t the case, city leaders and planners say. 

Despite rumors of its demise or dilution, the policy isn’t going away, said Duane Wittstock, city engineer for West Des Moines.

The traffic count policy might have just been an aggravation for developers to mutter about if not for the Kirke versus Hurd lawsuit, which was filed in April in order to bring attention to the traffic count policy.

Hurd had planned to buy nearly 30 acres of Kirke-owned land at the northeast and southeast corners of the intersection of 60th Street and Mills Civic Parkway and sell part of the land to Kum & Go LC for a convenience store.

City planners said the convenience store would limit development opportunities for the remainder of the land because it would generate too much traffic. That piece of information appeared to scuttle the deal.

Dating to the development of Jordan Creek Town Center, the city had followed a somewhat unforgiving policy that used national traffic count surveys to establish travel flow limits during the morning and evening rush hours as well as a daily average. Developers just needed to check the charts to know where their project fit in the traffic flow equation.

The driving force was to achieve a service level of “D” as established by the Institute of Transportation Engineers, according to the city’s comprehensive plan. Service level “D” is best summarized this way: some congestion, but not too much. In other words, no one in the city – not developers, not city planners, not shoppers and commuters – wants to sit through three red lights before proceeding through an intersection.

That was the grade promised to Wells Fargo in 2003, and it seemed to be a reasonable and realistic compromise between no stops - think uninterrupted freeway traffic - and mind-numbing, temper-flaring delays in which the nearest traffic light is a red blur in the distance.

But the traffic count policy has long puzzled some, especially those who believe that creating a traffic jam around their business is good for commerce.

According to local developers, West Des Moines is the only community in Greater Des Moines that adheres to the national data.

“We believe it is an odd way to promote development,” said Kirke spokeswoman Jamie Buelt.

Another developer quipped that he had sought his entire career to create a traffic jam.

Wittstock said the policy is one of many balancing acts the city performs in encouraging orderly development.

“We want to make sure that everybody gets a fair land use and still keep the system running,” he said. “That’s the balancing act right there.”

Mayor Steve Gaer said the city no longer adheres strictly to the national data, but uses it as a reference point.

“We’re trying to build in more flexibility than what the traffic count allocation accounted for,” he said. “The last thing we want is vacant land, but we don’t want to flood the system.”

Gaer also pointed out that the traffic allocation for the Kirke property was increased 550 percent in 2005. He said the land initially was intended for residential development.

Kirke dismissed the lawsuit in September, sold property at the northeast corner of 60th and Mills Civic to Hurd and held on to property at the southeast corner. According to city documents, Kirke could have a mixed-use development that would include residential units, restaurants and a hotel.

For his part, Hurd said he made substantial changes for his property. Kum & Go still plans a convenience store on part of the land, and other uses could include sit-down restaurants.

“I have made substantial changes,” he said. The Hurd project will be called Mills Crossing.

He said the squabble over traffic counts set back development of the property by two years.

Gaer said the incident was unsettling to him, both as a policymaker and as a developer. Gaer is chief operating officer and general counsel for West Des Moines-based R&R Realty Group.

“I was a bit frustrated as a policymaker that they were trying to make the city out as the bad guy, when the city gave them huge increases to begin with,” he said.