The Winona County Planning Commission voted to recommend a set of zoning ordinance amendments that would relax regulations for home and farm owners whose structures were legal when they were built, but rendered "nonconforming" under the land use rules approved in 2011.
The 2011 ordinance included a number of new or more restrictive rules, including structure setbacks from bluffs, rules against building on prime soils, provisions to protect Native American burial grounds, and the requirement that a person own at least 40 acres of land to build a home without a permit. Because of the tightened regulations, many existing homes, businesses and farms were rendered nonconforming by the ordinance, and the title carries distinct consequences mandated by the state: nonconforming structures cannot be expanded, and if destroyed by fire or other act of God, cannot be rebuilt without conforming to the new rules.
Many of the amendments the Planning Commission recommended for approval were aimed at reducing the number of homes and agricultural structures that were made nonconforming under the 2011 ordinance. The amendments would lift the nonconformity title from homes and agricultural structures built before the new ordinance took effect and place them within the "Rural Heritage District," a district that would allow the ability to expand those structures within a 300-foot radius without a special permit. The 2011 rules would still be in place for new developments, but existing homes and other structures that followed old regulations when they were constructed would be added to the Rural Heritage District, which would be subject to less stringent lot size and setback regulations that were in place in the 1970s county zoning ordinance.
Additionally, if the County Board follows suit, gone will be the most contentious sentence contained within the controversial 300-page zoning ordinance: "Furthermore, it is the intent of this section that all nonconformities shall be gradually eliminated and eventually brought into conformity." For organized property rights advocates in Winona County, the sentence reflected the county's desire to get rid of their homes and businesses over time.
The issue, however, is far from simple. Dozens of opponents to the amendments have voiced strong concern that the changes to the land use rules would result in blufftop houses expanded to the edges of steep ridges, that the ability to expand those homes would worsen erosion control problems for people who live below, and that the amendments would gut an ordinance that was crafted to protect unique environmental and cultural features found in Winona County. Additionally, some residents said they feared that — given the ability to expand a barn within the 300-foot radius — farmers' feedlot operations would encroach on nearby dwellings, fostering bad blood between neighbors throughout rural county landscapes.
"I think it's a very bad idea, and it's opening a tremendous can of worms," said Planning Commission member Robert Redig. "I think it's irresponsible."
Planning Commission and County Board member Steve Jacob, who campaigned on the promise that he would amend the ordinance to reduce the number of nonconforming properties it had created before he took office, said it was important that all nonconforming properties be included in the proposal. One commissioner suggested that the exemption from bluff setbacks be removed from the amendment, but Jacob noted that the current Rural Heritage District already includes properties that are in conflict with bluff setbacks and allows them to be expanded. "We don't want to create another class of citizens," added commissioner Don Evanson, another proponent of the amendments.
"We are creating classes of citizens; it's a bunch of hogwash to think that we're not," quipped Planning Commission Chair Bob Peterson.
Commissioner Robert Redig wondered why the nonconformity label was so onerous to some. "It's like cancer or something," he said, adding that in many cases, property owners could get conditional use or variance permits to go around the more restrictive zoning regulations.
Peterson explained that the ordinance revisions, for the most part, had to do with existing properties, not new developments, adding that the nonconforming title became more problematic when a structure was destroyed by fire or other calamity.
"The biggest person this is going to help is the farmer," said Jacob, of farmers whose agricultural operations were penned in due to new setbacks, and who would be able to rebuild or expand barns under the proposed new rules.
"People were reaching out for the American dream when they built their houses," said Evanson. When reminded that zoning authorities across the country often create stricter regulations that render existing properties nonconforming, Evanson dismissed the argument. "I don't care what everybody else does. This is Winona County."
The Winona County Board will hold a public hearing on the ordinance amendments, then take a final vote on the matter, during an upcoming meeting.