by CHRIS ROGERS
The new Winona County Board got off to a divisive start at its first meeting yesterday. In split votes divided along rural-urban lines, the commissioners scrapped a County Board chair rotation schedule that gave all commissioners a chance to appoint members to the Planning Commission and appointed critics of the Daley Farms’ expansion to county committees that will soon decide whether to allow the expansion.
“I would plead for our rural communities … please let us be a part of appointing members of our rural community, the members that we feel serve our rural districts,” County Board member Steve Jacob unsuccessfully urged his colleagues. The chairship matters because the board chair alone — not the full County Board — makes appointments to the Planning Commission. It is essentially the only special power the chair holds. The Planning Commission and Board of Adjustment (BOA) make important county zoning decisions, and county zoning only applies to rural land outside city limits. In 2015, the County Board agreed unanimously to take turns serving as chair, and under that schedule, it was Jacob’s turn to be chair. At Tuesday’s meeting, commissioners elected by city residents in Winona and Goodview — Marie Kovecsi, Chris Meyer, and Greg Olson — voted 3-2 against rural commissioners Jacob and Marcia Ward to appoint Kovecsi as chair instead. Kovecsi made appointments to the Planning Commission with which the rural commissioners disagreed, and the urban majority voted 3-2 against the rural commissioners to make appointments to the BOA, as well.
Jacob and Ward argued that those decisions disenfranchised rural voters. “There’s not much more you could do in the first five minutes of the first meeting to set a tone that’s the opposite of the spirit of cooperation between the city and the country than to take away the rural community’s ability to have influence on the members of the Planning Commission that are going to serve the rural community,” Jacob stated, adding, “It feels like a power play by the non-rural commissioners to keep rural influence off the Planning Commission.”
“This rural-city division is a smoke screen,” commissioner Marie Kovecsi stated. Although she is elected by city residents, Kovecsi said that she has worked hard to understand rural constituents’ concerns and represent the entire county.
“It’s not equal, folks. It just is not equal,” Ward responded. “So to say you will represent the rural entities, I have difficulties agreeing with that statement.”
Several of the new appointees live in the country. The zoning ordinance sets requirements that a certain percentage of the BOA’s members live outside city limits, for instance. However, rural and urban commissioners disagreed on which rural residents to appoint, with urban commissioners often favoring appointees who support stronger environmental protection. Pointing to those rural residency requirements, Meyer said, “I think the rural representation on those committees is there.”
Kovecsi, Meyer, and Olson contended that the chair rotation schedule runs afoul of state law, which states that every year, the County Board “shall elect” a chair from its members. In an interview, County Attorney Karin Sonneman said that as long as the County Board makes a motion to approve the chair each year, the rotation schedule is legally acceptable. According to county staff, numerous counties across the state rotate their chairships.
Rural land use decisions do affect city residents, too, Kovecsi argued. She said she has heard from many constituents concerned about upcoming conditions use permits (CUPs). “They are counting on us to represent the district and the county,” Kovecsi stated. She added, “Water moves in many directions.”
The Daley Farms’ proposed expansion — which would increase the Lewiston farm’s dairy herd from 2,275 animal units to 5,968 animal units (the equivalent of 4,263 cows) and produce 46 million gallons of manure annually — is just one example of the sort of important decisions the Planning Commission and BOA make. The Daley family plans on seeking a conditional use permit (CUP) from the Planning Commission and County Board in order to expand. More importantly and more controversial, the Daleys are asking the BOA to give them a variance — or an exception — to a county rule that limits the size of feedlots to 1,500 animal units.
Before Tuesday’s meeting, Daley Farms partner Shelly DePestel distributed resolutions from the city councils of Lewiston, Utica, Altura, Elba, and Rollingstone stating that the rural cities support the Daley Farms’ expansion. Some of those cities’ drinking water has been contaminated by nitrates in the past. Manure is one potential source of nitrate pollution. The city of Winona’s drinking water is drawn from a much deeper aquifer that has not been affected by nitrate pollution and is less vulnerable to such pollution because of its depth. As for surface water, Trout Unlimited spoke against the Daleys’ expansion out of concern that manure runoff would affect trout streams. The MPCA ruled that as long as the Daleys follow requirements for proper manure management, there will be no potential for significant harm to surface or groundwater.
Asked in an interview if she felt it was fair for urban commissioners to decide who makes rural zoning decisions, Meyer said that, ideally, “What I would really like is a balance, and that everyone who sits on those committees is more of a centrist. But that’s not the reality, and I’m not 100-percent sure how to get there.” Meyer explained that she feels that commissioners on both sides of Winona County’s environmental debates appoint people with preconceived agendas, rural commissioners included. Given that reality, Meyer said she felt she needed to balance out the appointments made by rural commissioners. “If you take today in isolation and you don’t look at several years worth of history, maybe there’s something to it — this fairness question,” she stated. However, the district one commissioner said during the meeting, “If I support [keeping the chairship rotation], I’d be abdicating representation for district one, and I can’t support that.” Meyer added in an interview, “In my heart of hearts, it’s not a question of fairness. It’s a question of balance.”
After being elected chair, Kovecsi appointed Lynn Carlson and Patrick Byron to the Planning Commission. In a public comment to the MPCA about the Daley Farms last fall, Byron wrote, “I OPPOSE this expansion for the following reasons …” Byron pointed to current violations at the Daley Farms, he argued that the MPCA “has been lax” in monitoring the feedlot, and he stated, “with the majority of wells in Winona County exceeding nitrate levels, it puts more wells in harms way with this proposed MAJOR expansion.” Carlson ran for election last fall in Ward’s district. She made nitrate pollution a major focus of her campaign and was defeated in the primary election.
Ward and Jacob argued for appointing Duane Wirt, Soil and Water Conservation District Board Supervisor Bill Rowekamp, Hillsdale Township Board Chair Michael Flynn, and Chad Theede to the Planning Commission or Board of Adjustment.
Kovecsi, Meyer, and Olson voted 3-2 to appoint Wendy Larson and Rachel Stoll to the BOA. Both Larson and Stoll made public comments opposing the Daley Farms’ expansion last fall. They may soon be voting on whether to allow that expansion.
Several returning members of the Planning Commission and BOA also raised concerns about or opposition to the Daley Farms’ proposal in public comments this fall, including Vince Ready, Kelley Stanage, and Cherie Hales. Ward argued against reappointing them for that reason. Jacob supported reappointing Hales even though he and Hales sometimes disagree over policy. The board majority supported reappointing them.
U.S. law requires BOA and Planning Commission members considering variances and permits to act like judges: to make impartial decisions and reach conclusions only after a fair hearing. Courts have sometimes overturned local government permitting decisions because decision makers stated how they would vote before hearing all of the evidence. Jacob and Ward argued that the County Board should rule out applicants for the Planning Commission and BOA who had already taken a public position on the Daley Farms. County Attorney Karin Sonneman cautioned citizen appointees not to act as advocates for or against permitting decisions on which they may be voting; however, she said that it would be inappropriate for the County Board to rule out Planning Commission applicants because, under the ordinance, those decisions belong to the chair. In any case, Kovecsi, Meyer, and Olson rejected Jacob and Ward’s motion and supported Byron, Larson, and Stoll’s appointment.
In an interview, Meyer said she believes that there is nothing wrong with BOA and Planning Commission members raising concerns about the Daleys’ proposal and asking the MPCA for more information in the form of an environmental impact statement. However, Meyer said she did feel a letter to the editor by BOA applicant Amy Cordry crossed a line. “That really does matter to me,” Meyer said. That letter argued the BOA should not issue a variance to the Daleys. Although Kovecsi and Olson supported Cordry’s appointment to the BOA, Meyer stated that because of the letter, she could not.