by Sarah Squires
It’s been months since the controversial new Winona County Zoning Ordinance was put on the books, and in order to evaluate how the new land use rules have been working, commissioners were presented with an update during a recent county board meeting.
Some of the new provisions within the ordinance, such as requiring farmers to obtain a permit before building an agricultural structure, have kept staff busy since the ordinance went into effect March 15. Additionally, a rule requiring a variance to build a new home on prime soils seems to be extremely difficult to satisfy, according to planning staff, who anticipate many future variance requests for this reason.
Planning staff had issued 127 development certificates (often called building certificates) between March 15 and mid-November. Of those permits, 18 were for new homes, 10 were for commercial structures, 54 were for additions or accessory structures, six were for wind or solar structures, and a full 39 were for agricultural structures.
Prior to the adoption of the ordinance, many residents spoke against the requirement to obtain a permit before building an agricultural structure. In response to those concerns, the fee was waived for development certificates for new structures used primarily for agriculture.
But that free permit has admittedly caused a bit of trouble for planning staff, as plenty of folks have argued that proposed structures will be for farming purposes in order to avoid the fee. “Staff has observed an increased number of applicants assert that their structure is ‘agricultural in nature,’ and this situation has presented a challenge for staff at times to distinguish pure agricultural use and structures, versus structures constituting partial or minimal agricultural use,” planning staff stated in the zoning update. Agricultural development certificates have accounted for roughly 30 percent of certificates issued.
Of the 127 development certificates issued, two have required a phase one archaeological survey because the planned development was located within an area listed as having a high probability for containing archaeological artifacts or remains.
Since the new ordinance was adopted, 12 variances were processed, with nine approved, two denied and one withdrawn.
Most of those variances had to do with setbacks, with six for feedlot setbacks, two for septic or bluff setbacks and one subdivision regulation application.
Prior to the new ordinance, feedlot setbacks were the most common variance request, as is under the current rules. But according to the staff report, there would likely have been more feedlot setback variances under the old ordinance, and it appears as though changes to the new ordinance have cut back on the need for such permits.
The new ordinance changes setback requirements, with distances now related to the number of animal units contained by the neighboring feedlot. The effort was to ensure that the hardship of large setbacks was not presented to those trying to build a home near a feedlot with just a handful of animals.
Three variances were applied for by those seeking to build a home on prime soils. The performance standard requiring that new homes built on prime soil receive a variance was added to the new ordinance late in the game, as an effort to preserve agricultural land.
But there aren’t many building sites out there without any prime soils, according to the staff report, and even tracts of more than 40 acres often have high frequencies of prime soils throughout. Staff have indicated that they expect to see a lot of variances for this new rule.
“Reviewing data on a good share of the county with property owners on a regular basis has revealed that this will continue to present difficulties [for] property owners wishing to construct a new home due to very limited options in satisfying this requirement, due to the high frequency of soil types involving a I, II, or III on an entire parcel, even tracts in excess of 40 acres,” reads the report.
Conditional Use Permits
Fourteen Conditional Use Permits have been processed under the new ordinance, including five for homes on less than 40 acres, three for land alterations/mining activity, three for home occupations, and several miscellaneous requests. All 14 were approved.