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Nonconformity zone change hearing Thursday (08/14/2013)
By Sarah Squires
The first major overhaul of the Winona County zoning ordinance since it was enacted in 2011 will be the subject of a public hearing Thursday before the Planning Commission.

The set of amendments were proposed by County Board and Planning Commission member Steve Jacob, who campaigned on the promise he would restore property rights to landowners whose property was labeled "nonconforming" under the new ordinance. One of the biggest ordinance changes endorsed by Jacob would allow landowners to expand a structure labeled as nonconforming within a 300-foot radius around the building without seeking a conditional use or variance permit. A nonconforming property is one that met the old ordinance requirements — from setbacks to lot size — but does not comply with the new regulations in the current ordinance.

An informational meeting was held last week on the proposal, during which county staff members attempted to explain the way the new ordinance provisions would work. County planning staff and Planning Commission members were then peppered with questions from members of the public. It was promised by the county that the answers would be made available on the county website prior to Thursday's hearing.

A set of questions and answers was posted to the county's website, but many of the most significant questions — concerning how many properties and structures would be affected by the change — remain unanswered. County staff members said it would not be "practical or feasible" to conduct the kind of study needed to determine how many properties are currently labeled as nonconforming, and said owners of nonconforming properties have not been notified of that status.

However, in 2010, when the county was still working on the new zoning ordinance, county staff members did attempt to identify how many properties would be considered nonconforming under the new rules for bluff and shoreland setback requirements. At that time, county staff estimated that 26,087 acres of property included structures or uses that would be considered nonconforming. Those properties were later added to the "Rural Heritage District," which allows property owners some leeway to expand structures. Jacob's amendment would expand that district to include all nonconforming structures and the 300-foot radius around them, which would likely add more acreage to the Rural Heritage District than the 26,087 previously identified by county staff.

Some citizens voiced concern over whether the amendment would allow a feedlot to be expanded within the 300-foot radius without a public hearing or neighbor notification, fearing the ability to expand in that way would mean that feedlots could encroach on neighboring homes closer than the current 1,000-foot feedlot setback. According to county staff, while a barn could be expanded within the 300-foot radius under the plan, "expansion of animal units would trigger a conditional use permit requirement under the current code requirements which would require a hearing."

The way the amendment might allow structures currently seated on bluff tops to be expanded, and potentially be viewed from valleys below, was also a subject of contention during the informational meeting last week. In response to questions about how many homes and structures might be expanded into the line of sight from below, county staff said an inventory could be conducted to determine how many homes currently exist within the new bluff setback areas. However, it would not be feasible, staff admitted, to attempt to estimate the total impact of new construction that might arise as a result of the ordinance amendment, because such development could vary widely over time.

The meeting will be held on Thursday, August 15, at 7 p.m. at the county office building on Main Street.  


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