100-foot setbacks for Winona County bluffs


by Sarah Squires

Viewshed analysis as ‘absolute’ tool nixed

Winona County’s bluffs are one step closer to protection from development after county commissioners hammered out a compromise which will place a 100-foot setback from the tops of all county bluffs.

And while not much changed when compared to the draft ordinance, county leaders seemed to agree that a GIS viewshed analysis — which uses topography to predict what can be seen from a certain vantage point — won’t be used as an absolute tool for building. Commissioners mulled a possible 150-foot setback from the tops of all bluffs, but compromised with a 100-foot setback coupled with height restrictions for the most highly valued blufftops.

Height restrictions, which county staff will work on over the coming weeks, will be placed on bluffs closest to the Mississippi River within one mile of the Highway 61 corridor. Buildings placed within that corridor would also be set back a minimum 100 feet, and any proposed structure to be placed between 100 feet and 300 feet from the top of the bluff will be required to obtain a Conditional Use Permit (CUP).

The board didn’t officially vote on the changes, but seemed to agree on the compromise. But that agreement didn’t come without some argument, with Commissioner Marcia Ward worried that rules against development on more marginal hillsides and slopes would be overly restrictive.

“Say my bluff doesn’t affect anyone’s viewshed because there is no road in the valley?” asked Ward. “You’re pushing the building... into agricultural land.”

Ward said there were plenty of “dead-end valleys” and other slopes within the county where bluff development likely would never affect anyone’s views, and worried that the blanket setbacks would push new development onto prime agricultural land and overly limit property rights. “Do the turkeys and the coyotes and the white tail deer care where I build on my property?” she asked.

That argument, about restrictions on such marginal valleys and bluffs, helped form the compromised 100-foot setback, short of the 150 feet proposed by planning staff. Commissioners seemed to agree that the lessened setback would restrict fewer properties, and property owners who wanted to build along such dead-end valleys would likely be able to plead a good case for a CUP.

And although the bluff protection piece of the new zoning ordinance seems to have enough board votes to pass, Ward expressed criticism of the setbacks entirely, wondering what bluff protection really has to do with county government’s charge: protecting the health, safety and general welfare of the citizens.

“How restrictive are we getting?” she asked. “Why do people build on these places? It is because of the view. If you make it difficult in Winona County, people will do it somewhere else. Is building a house with a view a health, safety and general welfare issue?”

County leaders who favor bluff protection measures said that the ordinance will help protect steep slopes from erosion and related public safety and welfare concerns, and that preserving views also protects tourism dollars that tie into community welfare issues.

The tentative agreement among most board members marks a step closer to the overall zoning rewrite, which has been in the works for several years. Bluff protection measures have been one of the more controversial parts of the ordinance, and will be one of the county’s first steps in preserving bluff views.


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