The Winona County Planning Commission tabled a set of zoning ordinance amendments on Thursday, opting to allow more time to work through the details of the proposals. Commissioners will resume their work next month.
Dozens of citizens spoke in favor of, or in opposition to the amendments, the first major overhaul to the new land use rules since they went into effect in 2011.
The biggest change would expand the current Rural Heritage district to include homes and barns that were legal when they were constructed, but were labeled as "nonconforming" properties under the new ordinance. The nonconforming title would be removed, and the homes or barns would be allowed to expand within a 300-foot radius. Properties that are in conflict with current bluff and steep slope setbacks are already contained within the Rural Heritage district, and the current ordinance does allow them to be expanded under certain conditions. Additionally, the amendment would allow a barn to be expanded within the 300-foot radius, but any expansion of animal units would still trigger feedlot permit requirements, county staff has noted.
The amendments would also allow property owners of parcels containing fewer than 40 acres, that were recorded prior to the new ordinance, to construct a home, as well as allow the owner of a nonconforming home to rebuild if more than 50 percent of the home were destroyed by fire or other natural disaster. Road access to a new home would be allowed through an easement on neighboring property, and land uses not specifically listed in the new ordinance would be allowed, with the approval of the Planning Director, under the amendments.
Commissioners made several minor revisions to the proposed amendments, then opted to call it a night after the meeting went past 10 p.m.
Comments at times grew heated during the hearing Thursday, the first of two public hearings required for an ordinance revision. Many people, mainly residents of the city of Winona, objected to changes they said would weaken both bluff protection and other measures contained in the new ordinance. Others said the revisions added common sense to the land use rules and restored property rights that were taken when the 2011 ordinance was enacted.
Kent Cowgill, Winona resident, said the current ordinance represented years of work, debate, and compromise. "It seems shortsighted and ill-advised to me to basically throw that work overboard and grant the kind of access to property building and development that really could significantly change the character of the bluff lands," he said.
County resident Richard Hunnewell said that those who support the zoning amendments have been called selfish and self-centered, accusations he said would be better aimed at Winona residents who demanded strict regulations for rural land. "My question is, where is the data to prove that these kinds of digressions of my freedoms are warranted?" he asked. "What harm are we solving? I got one answer, eventually, and it was that people might be on a cruise going up the Mississippi and somehow or other have their feelings hurt when they looked up and saw my house."
Other residents claimed that their properties at the toes of bluffs had been damaged by erosion caused by homes erected on the tops of bluffs. Johanna Rupprecht, a Winona resident who grew up in Norton Township and now works for the Land Stewardship Project, said generations ago, her family had to give up farming in the valley because intense land uses on the bluff tops caused erosion and other problems. "Land use practices on people's own land affects other people," she said. "No matter how much you talk about property rights, you have to remember that."
County resident Michael Bush, among others, complained that landowners of property such as bluff tops that could not be used for development should not have to continue to pay high property taxes for the land. Those who want to look at the bluffs, suggested Bush, should be the ones paying those taxes. "I mean, every one of you guys would condemn Fountain City; you'd condemn Homer," he exclaimed.
One commenter feared that allowing homes to be built in areas that may potentially contain Native American burial grounds, without an archeological study, would be a mistake. "This is withdrawing yet another promise, yet another pact, with our Dakota [people]," he said.
An Amish man at the meeting urged commissioners to support what he called "the most common sense I've heard since I've been going in circles with planning and zoning. We have hundreds and hundreds of Amish people that support this 100 percent. What was passed in 2011 shouldn't have been passed in the first place."