A process is underway that will direct the future of Winona County and likely change the county zoning ordinance. The Comprehensive Plan Advisory Committee met for the first time Thursday, May 30, to begin reworking the county's controversial 2000 comprehensive plan. What the committee creates will dictate much of the county's actions for the next 10 to 20 years. All zoning decisions, from the creation of a new zoning ordinance to simple variance requests, rely on the comprehensive plan for guidance and legal footing. Many government actions can be overturned in court if they are not in accordance with the comprehensive plan. The plan guides the work of county planners, economic developers, and other staff.
"I wonder if people have any comprehension of how serious this comprehensive plan is and how it affects everything else," asked Township Officer Association member Bruce Speltz.
"What we present now as a comprehensive plan is going to guide the [zoning] ordinance whenever that's rewritten," committee member Andy Kronebusch pointed out.
Will farm land be protected? Will urban sprawl be contained? Will industrial development be encouraged? The comprehensive plan will guide policy decisions on all of these important issues and more for many years to come.
"This process might not be done again until 2030. It shows the long-term vision," committee chair Mike Flynn said, addressing the group.
Despite language honoring the value of township officers' input, township officials across the county voted 52-0 against the 2000 plan. A lingering concern over whether township input would be taken seriously was palpable at the recent meeting.
"I would not like to see this used as a guide," Kronebusch said, tapping on the 2000 plan, "because when this was written the Township Officers Association dedicated many hours to give input in this and the county board didn't even give it any consideration."
Kronebusch said his township and others supported cluster housing as a way to protect agricultural land. That "is just one example of what the people put out in 1999 that didn't get in here," he said, again pointing to the 2000 plan. "Rewriting the zoning a few years back, at all the meetings I went to, they said that getting a house in the country was going to be easier." However, "Instead of making things easier [the zoning ordinance] makes it more complicated," he continued. "I think, as long as we're in the process of redoing this comprehensive plan, we should start from ground zero."
While township officials may be wary that their input will not be heeded this time around either, having the Township Officers Association provide a formal recommendation on the plan and township officials on the advisory committee, townships at least have more involvement in decision making.
How to include and to what extent to include the public was a topic of discussion. County staff and committee members stressed the importance of community input and transparency, but several committee members also expressed a desire to keep public commentary in check.
"My experience on the town board was anytime you have a public hearing, a good majority of the time a special interest group shows up and takes over the majority of the meeting. We need public input, yes, but we need to keep in the back of our minds that what we're hearing is one-sided," said committee member and former Warren Township Chair Everett Rolfing. Rolfing added that because of the diversity of the group, from business owners to Farm Bureau members and township officers, it represents a broad base of public interests.
"We can come up with a fairly realistic public opinion, somewhat, without basing it entirely on public hearings — they kind of have a tendency to get taken over," Rolfing said.
Flynn said that he envisioned soliciting public input at meetings throughout the county and allowing a window for public comment at certain meetings, but that the committee has discretion in how much public input it incorporates into meetings."We don't have to turn this into a barn dance if we don't want to," he said.
Committee member Don Evanson stressed the importance of notifying the public of meetings. "It seems to me in the last cycle every meeting was noticed publicly, and I don't know if this meeting was noticed, and if it wasn't I think that's unfortunate. Every meeting should be noticed."
Last week's meeting was posted on the county website shortly before the meeting. Notice was not given to local news media. Numerous committee members called for future meeting notices to be posted in print and broadcast media.
Health Impact Assessment
Winona County has been selected to receive a $30,000 grant to prepare a Health Impact Assessment (HIA) in conjunction with the comprehensive plan. HIAs are, essentially, a health planning document. They look at the impact of various policy decisions on citizens' health and provide information to the County Board on the impact. An HIA might look at the impact of the loss of farm land on local food, on health, or the impact of economic policies on aging residents' ability to afford health care costs, Gilman explained, introducing the project to the committee.
The county has yet to officially approve the HIA, and whether it will be included in the comprehensive plan or submitted to the board as a separate document has yet to be decided by county leaders. A separate focus group will control the creation of the HIA, but if it is included in the comprehensive plan, the advisory committee will have review over the HIA. The focus group, Gilman said, "is already being cultivated."
Since the purpose of a comprehensive plan is to take all things into account, "[the HIA] may have more utility being integrated into the comprehensive plan," said Gilman, but it could function either way.
Winona County is one of two governmental bodies selected to receive grant funding for an HIA by the Minnesota Department of Health. The city of Duluth is the other. Gilman said that the fact that the county was about to begin reworking its comprehensive plan — and the opportunity that allowed an HIA to create policy discussion — was the main reason for Winona County being selected.