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Does your house conform? (04/03/2013)
By Sarah Squires
Winona County considers ordinance changes

The new Winona County zoning ordinance became effective in March, 2011, after years of wrangling. One of the most contentious issues of the new law of the land was the way it handled properties considered "nonconforming," or those which complied with the rules when they were built or when the parcel was created, but do not meet the requirements of the new zoning laws. The new rules explicitly say the intent of the ordinance is to eliminate those structures and uses over time. With hundreds if not thousands of properties now carrying the title of "nonconforming," due to setbacks from bluffs and feedlots, driveway requirements, and other new or stricter regulations, some landowners began to worry.

Steve Jacob, who took office at the start of 2013, campaigned with a promise to fix the nonconformity section of the ordinance. After the County Board agreed late last month to consider some revisions to the section, the conflict over the new ordinance may be on the way to what some called a "great compromise."

A change of intent

In the 300-page zoning ordinance, two sentences in the nonconformity section stirred the most outcry among opponents of the regulations: "It is necessary and consistent with the establishment of this ordinance that nonconforming buildings, structures, uses and lots not be allowed to continue without restriction. Furthermore, it is the intent of this section that all nonconformities shall be gradually eliminated and eventually brought into conformity."

Winona County Planning and Environmental Services Director Jason Gilman told the board that there were a variety of ways to handle property considered nonconforming, "but [Winona County rules are] probably one of the more severe types of positions on nonconformities."

Gilman brought forward a new set of regulations that will be considered by the Planning Commission in the coming weeks and ultimately finalized by the County Board. Instead of the language indicating a desire to eliminate these kinds of properties, the suggested revision would read:

"While it is the intent of this section to gradually eliminate those nonconformities that pose a danger to public health, safety and welfare, this ordinance recognizes the presence of established existing structures and therefore provides for the maintenance and expansion of these existing uses and structures which were legally established at the time of their construction. Expansion of existing structures in the Residential or Agricultural Zoning Districts under this provision must comply with all the district requirements insofar as practical but shall not be less than the following provisions consistent with Winona County Zoning Ordinance as of August 1, 1970."

The section then lists less strict setback requirements for those properties, setbacks that match the 1970 rules.

Rebuild your house: pulling out the 'cold, callous' language

The current ordinance states a nonconforming property destroyed or damaged by fire or other "act of God" by more than 50 percent of its value cannot be rebuilt, unless it would conform to the new ordinance. "In some cases, there could be individuals who lose their home and they've got no place to build on that existing site because they're pinching setbacks," explained Gilman.

New, suggested language would allow such a home or structure to be rebuilt within 180 days with a permit, in the exact same location, unless the structure was located in a floodplain.

Commissioner Jim Pomeroy said it was never the intent of the board not to allow a person to rebuild after a fire, calling the thought "cold and callous."

If it is not on the list,

it is not allowed

Each zoning district carries with it a list of permitted uses. Based on a broad statement in Chapter 2, any land use not listed, however, is considered prohibited, which prompted questions from some landowners unsure of whether certain activities might now be against the law.

New language drafted by planning staff would provide for a ruling by the planning director on uses not listed in the ordinance, outlining what he must consider when deciding whether a land use is acceptable or not.

Board discussion

Jacob endorsed the proposed changes, stating he had heard from constituents, realtors, and banks concerned about the nonconformity section of the ordinance. "This is a great compromise," he said. "A lot of my constituents, if they had it their way, we'd be throwing this whole [ordinance] out." Calling the current nonconformity section a "burden that might send people to other counties," Jacob said the reason there had not been more complaints about the ordinance since it was adopted was due to the troubled economy, which provided for less development, and fewer regulatory problems with it.

Commissioner Greg Olson said as an inspector for the city of Winona, he had heard from people that banks would not lend them money because of a nonconforming status, which he called "bull." He said the city routinely sent out letters to lenders telling them homes could be rebuilt if they were destroyed by fire.

Jacob said he respectfully disagreed, adding he was willing to show Olson letters he had received from multiple banks with concerns about the county's ordinance governing nonconforming properties. "They want very clean secondary market loans that have no encumbrances," he explained.

The Planning Commission is expected to review the proposed changes and make a recommendation to the County Board in the coming months. Keep reading the Winona Post for more on this story.



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