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Winona County rethinks rural home rules (04/24/2013)
By Sarah Squires

As older generations retire from a life of agriculture, their children are moving back to the farm.

It might seem simple for the folks to build a new house on the farm for their adult children to live in as they transition into the new generation of farmers in Winona County's hills and valleys. But it's not.

When resold, both the old farmhouses in Winona County, along with any new ones allowed to be built to house the new generation, can present major land use conflicts. Farmland might be in demand, but farmhouses are not. For that reason, county leaders expect rural landowners will request that farm homes be split from the farm parcels when the time comes to sell the land. Most farm dwellings are built very close to feedlots and farm operations, so if those farmhouses are sold to people who don't farm themselves, county leaders fear the future owners may object to the smells and the impact farm activities may have when positioned so close to a residence. The new owners could join the ranks of those who show up at public hearings and object to farm expansion plans. County officials are grappling with this issue, which could someday present quite a hurdle for protecting and expanding agriculture in Winona County.

Current rules on the books allow the original farmhouse to be exempt from the 1,000-foot feedlot setback. Farmers who want to add a second dwelling on their farm parcels, also close to feedlots, must seek a permit from the county, and are often asked to guarantee the second home will be used to house family or farm workers.

Because any future sale of the farm dwellings can create a land use conflict between non-farm residents and feedlots, county leaders have been cautious about granting permits for second homes on farms, and for requests to split a parcel that contains a home from.

Winona County Planning Commission members discussed the issue last week and also heard from a permit applicant who pointed out a problem with current county rules on the books related to recent changes in the housing and lending market.

Keith Olson bought his 80-acre New Hartford Township farm more than 25 years ago, with plans to build a home there when he and his wife retired. He paid off the farm and kept an eye on the progress of the new zoning ordinance, recognizing he might run into problems building his home where he wanted to if he waited for the new rules to take effect. He built the home before the new ordinance was approved, and found that lenders did not want to finance a home built on a parcel connected to agricultural land. To get the project going, he and wife, Cheryl, refinanced the farm with a nontraditional, balloon-payment loan, figuring once the house was built its equity would make it easier to obtain a traditional loan.

Olson then approached multiple local lenders and found none interested in providing a loan for the home, citing no desire to give a loan for a home that is connected to agricultural land. Planning Commission and County Board member Steve Jacob said he had run into the same problem himself: the secondary lending market does not want to deal with farmland, he said.

Olson, who appeared before the Planning Commission requesting a permit to split the house from the farm on a parcel less than 40 acres, said county rules on the books should be examined, because his situation would only become more common as more and more farmers reach retirement age.

"What farmer wants another house?" he asked. "If you guys are going to pass these rules, you've got to understand these financial institutions, because nobody's going to be able to buy anything. Other people are going to be running into this."

Several Planning Commission members recommended Olson attempt to work with a lender based in Mankato, adding that he would not find a lender willing to provide the loan for a home connected to an agricultural parcel locally. Commissioner James Hegland, a financial planner, said he went to 14 different banks himself, and no one was willing to lend money to build a home, either, until he looked at non-local lenders specializing in this kind of loan.

Olson said he was seeking such a small loan he wasn't sure the larger agricultural lender would be interested, but he would give it a try. The commission approved his request to split the parcel, then began discussion about potential zoning ordinance changes that might address the rural housing conflicts.

Nonfarm dwellings in feedlot setback areas

Currently, a person who would like to split a farm into two parcels and sell a home near a feedlot would have to obtain a variance permit to stray from the feedlot setback requirements. Commissioners examined two potential ordinance changes that would alleviate some of the issues with the current rules.

Gilman explained if a farm family member dies or has to move, the family may eventually have to liquidate the home or homes. If that grieving family were to be denied a variance permit in order to sell to a person who doesn't farm, it would not be a good situation, he explained.

One idea was to require an affidavit from any prospective home buyer that would hold the adjacent farm operator harmless from any nuisance complaints. The county currently requires language be added to new deeds for a similar agreement about potential nuisance complaints from homeowners who hold permits to live closer to a feedlot than allowed. The affidavit was thought a stronger mechanism to ensure that nonfarm homeowners do not complain, protest farm expansions or sue a farm operator, although county staff admitted it may not provide a true solution since it would be considered legally "weak" if farm operations changed.

The second approach and one embraced by commissioners would exempt farm homes located within the 1,000-foot setback area from the requirement that they obtain a variance in order to sell the home to someone who doesn't farm. This change could also be applied to farm owners who would like to build a second residence for family members to take over the farm.

The drawback, said commissioners, is that the exemption could be used by unscrupulous developers who want to "flip" rural homes. One solution proposed for newly constructed secondary farm dwellings was a five-year waiting period before a new farm home could be sold, unless a calamity or unexpected hardship required the property be liquidated sooner.

Jacob suggested lifting the feedback setback entirely, and relying on the language prohibiting new owners from complaining about farm operations. That way, said Jacob, farmers would have an easier time expanding feedlots, since they also would not have to abide by the 1,000-foot setback. Residents have told him, explained Jacob, that within the agricultural zoning district, farmers should have the ability to farm and expand. "[That way, people who don't farm] might rethink building next to a feedlot."

The Planning Commission is expected to discuss this issue, along with several other proposed changes to the zoning ordinance, at its May meeting. 


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