Winona County Planning Commission members began talks over several substantial changes to the county's zoning ordinance Thursday night, changes that County Board and Planning Commission member Steve Jacob has requested as a way to relax rules for properties considered "nonconforming" under the relatively new ordinance.
"Nonconforming" properties are structures and land uses that were legal at the time they were developed, but do not comply with the new ordinance that went into effect in March, 2011. The ordinance explicitly states that its intent is "that all nonconformities shall be gradually eliminated and eventually brought into conformity." It places restrictions on the expansion of structures considered nonconforming and limits the ability to rebuild a structure destroyed by fire or other natural disaster.
A suggested change to the nonconformity section of the ordinance, however, was questioned after several hours of debate as potentially in conflict with state statute. County Planning and Environmental Services Director Jason Gilman said he would discuss the matter with the County Attorney's Office staff and report back to the commission in the coming weeks.
Changes for nonconforming structures and land uses
Gilman's suggested new language would allow properties considered nonconforming to expand using the property line setbacks included in the 1970 Winona County Zoning Ordinance. For other setback requirements contained within the new ordinance, such as bluff top and stream setbacks, Gilman said the Planning Commission and County Board would have to offer guidance, as those changes would be more of a "policy change."
One section of state statute appears to prohibit the expansion of structures and uses considered nonconforming under county ordinances, although it was unclear Thursday night exactly what that might mean for the proposed ordinance changes.
Gilman said that providing relief for such properties was not uncommon in zoning ordinances, adding that strict regulations like those contained in the county's ordinance could threaten valued historic structures. He said one way to avoid conflict with the state statute might be to add overlay districts that would render these properties as conforming under the new ordinance, a feat that would be tricky given the varied location of nonconforming properties and uses, as well as the varied regulations that make them so.
Jacob advocated for a change to the ordinance that would remove the nonconforming label for structures and land uses that were established prior to the ordinance, adding those properties could still be subject to the new rules when a permit was sought or change was made, but would not be considered as nonconforming when an expansion is sought.
Planning Commission Chair Bob Peterson warned against any ordinance change that would "put an ordinance inside an ordinance," in which zoning staff would have to refer to old ordinances with which to regulate properties, a situation he said could become unmanageable for county staff. However, "I'm personally in favor of going as far as we can go [to alleviate nonconformity issues]," he added, saying he would like to know exactly how far the state would allow the county to stray from current ordinance language.
Jacob said his solution was not to allow existing structures and uses to proceed outside of the new zoning ordinance regulations, but wanted to ensure that the nonconformity label did not mean existing farms and homes were prohibited from expansion. "This was an extreme taking," he said of the new ordinance. "[Property owners] invested in the county; they came to me in the election, pleading with me. That's why I'm going to bat. There are more properties in Winona County that would be [considered] nonconforming than not."
Bluff protection impact
Gilman said the suggested nonconformity section changes did not include recommendations about how current bluff setbacks should be altered, calling it a policy decision best left to elected leaders.
Several concerned citizens attended the meeting, including Joe Morse of Bluff Land Environment Watch (BLEW). Morse said he was concerned about the way the proposed ordinance change could allow existing homes to be expanded further into bluff protection areas, and how it could provide for new homes to be built along sight lines on ridges. Morse asked that county leaders provide an informational meeting to better educate residents about what impact any proposed change would have on bluff protection measures, and provide data for how many homes and lots might be allowed to expand or build in bluff protection zones.
Planning Commission member Don Evanson asked that the commission also study a potential amendment to the bluff protection measures contained within the ordinance. The ordinance currently imposes a stricter bluff top setback on ridges within one mile of Highway 61 in the Mississippi River corridor. Evanson said that development projects that would face adjacent valleys — and not the river valley — should be considered for a lesser setback. Commissioners agreed to discuss the concept at a future meeting.
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