by Sarah Squires
Building a home in Winona County may soon have more to do with the quality of soil and crop yields than acreage requirements, after county leaders rejected density standards that would have required 80 acres to build in western townships without a special permit.
County staff had proposed dividing the county in half and requiring 40 acres (the current requirement) in the eastern half, and 80 acres to build a home in the western half. The measure was meant to protect agricultural land by encouraging those seeking to build to seek a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) to build on less acreage, which would allow county leaders to position permitted home sites on more marginal land.
But most on the board balked at the 80-acre standard, worrying that someone who could afford to purchase 80 acres of land would do so to avoid the permitting process, thereby likely taking nearly that many acres out of agricultural production.
County board member Dwayne Voegeli advocated for the 80-acre standard, and said that while he didn’t think it was perfect, he wanted to preserve agricultural land and didn’t see any other options on the table. He criticized other board members who objected to the proposed density requirements, saying they hadn’t come up with anything better.
But board member Mena Kaehler had suggested another option previously, one that the board eventually made its way back to on Tuesday. She asked at a previous zoning meeting why the burden of getting a permit would be placed on those seeking to build on small, marginal parcels not suited for agriculture. Why not, she asked, require those wishing to build on prime farm land to take on the burden of applying for a special permit?
So while the board rejected the large density standard of 80 acres, it also asked that staff seriously look into ways that soil and crop ratings could be worked into the rules. There should be, they said, a relief mechanism from all the rules for those seeking to build on small tracts of poor quality soils.
Board member Marcia Ward said that the rules could be much more simple. “How about no houses on prime agricultural land?” she asked. “If it’s good soil, you can’t plant a house there. You have to plant corn.”
County staff are expected to come up with some ideas for how this new approach could work to balance new home development with preserving agricultural land.