IOWA CITY — Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz is facing a challenge from an unlikely opponent: his neighbors.
A Feb. 6 trial is scheduled in a lawsuit that pits the nation's longest-tenured college football coach and his wife against the three other families who live along a private road outside Iowa City. A judge is expected to decide whether the Ferentzes breached a 2001 agreement and trespassed by planting trees and installing landscaping items that neighbors say encroach onto Saddle Club Road.
The lawsuit is part of a long-running dispute in which Ferentz and his wife, Mary, have been portrayed as difficult, stingy and privacy-obsessed, clashing with their image as friendly philanthropists who support the Iowa Children's Hospital.
A judge ruled in September that the Ferentzes aren't required to join the homeowners' association that their neighbors formed in 2015 to share road maintenance costs. That freed the Ferentzes from having to pay a $9,400 assessment for road repairs and dissolved a lien the association obtained on their property to collect payment.
The Iowa Supreme Court recently declined to hear the neighbors' appeal, setting up trial on remaining claims.
One neighbor has testified that they "bent over backward" to reach agreement with the Ferentzes but were rebuffed repeatedly. The Ferentzes' attorney has argued that the case is about property rights, saying owners cannot be subjected to restrictions to which they haven't agreed.
Lawyers for both sides declined to comment for this story.
Ferentz has led the Hawkeyes since 1999 and is Iowa's highest-paid public employee. His contract will pay $5.2 million this year, including a $500,000 bonus for an eight-win season.
The dispute dates to early in Ferentz's tenure, when his family bought land on the single-lane gravel road.
Neighbors John and Ann Marie Buatti proposed subdividing their 20-acre property for a development that would include a road resurfacing and extension. They wanted space for their children to ride bikes.
Mary Ferentz objected, saying she wanted the road kept gravel and the neighborhood to remain rural for privacy reasons.
"What I remember distinctly is she looked at me and said, 'No, you don't understand who I am.' ... I was a little bit taken back," John Buatti testified. "For me it was the safety of my children, not who she was or why that would matter."
To resolve the conflict, the neighbors signed a 2001 agreement that called for the formation of a homeowners' association to establish procedures for sharing road maintenance costs. It said that if any party changed the roadway surface to something other than gravel, they couldn't force others to pay for it.
The Buattis subdivided their property once and developer Gary Watts moved in. Saying the road was filled with potholes, Watts paid in 2003 to change the gravel surface to chip and seal. Mary Ferentz was opposed.
In 2015, the neighbors agreed the road needed repairs. They founded the Saddle Club Road Homeowners' Association, saying it was called for in the 2001 agreement. The association assessed each neighbor for a $37,000 repair project and established a $5,000 annual maintenance fund, partly to trim "obstructive branches" from the Ferentzes' trees.
The Ferentzes told their neighbors in a letter they weren't required to join because the 2001 agreement required a unanimous vote to form the association. They noted they opposed the 2003 road resurfacing, which brought more "stalkers and gawkers" to the neighborhood. The couple added that their road maintenance costs have doubled but they'd be willing to pay under a less formal agreement.
The association sued, alleging the couple violated its bylaws, breached the 2001 agreement and trespassed. The Ferentzes countersued, seeking an order declaring they aren't association members.
Judge Kevin McKeever ruled that the 2001 agreement required the Ferentzes to join an association but not the one formed because it was structured differently than what had been envisioned. He ordered the other claims to go to trial.