Some say they will ruin scenic bluffs, allow feedlots to encroach too closely on neighboring property, and destroy the environmental protections contained in the Winona County 2010 zoning ordinance. Others believe they will restore fundamental property rights that were severed under the zoning ordinance and enhance the ability of farmers to improve and expand their operations. The controversial proposed changes to the zoning ordinance will proceed to a final public hearing scheduled for Tuesday, November 5.
The hearing will begin at 7 p.m. at the county office building on Main Street in Winona, and members of the public will each be given two minutes to speak to commissioners about the proposed ordinance changes. A final vote may follow the hearing.
Commissioner Steve Jacob has led the effort to introduce the amendments, and campaigned on the promise he would work to change the ordinance to provide for stronger property rights. He has been repeatedly accused by opponents of having a conflict of interest because he is a rural property owner who has developed homes near blufftops in the past, although Winona County Attorney Karin Sonneman wrote a legal opinion explaining that such broad changes to regulations — which apply to all similarly situated landowners — did not present a conflict for Jacob.
The most substantial change to the county land use rules would expand the current Rural Heritage district to include homes and farm structures that were legal when they were constructed, but labeled "nonconforming" under the 2010 ordinance. The nonconforming title would be removed, and owners of the homes or barns would be allowed to expand them within a 300-foot radius around the structure. If a barn were allowed to be expanded under the proposed zoning change language, a special permit would not be required; however, any increase of animal units would still require a feedlot permit.
Buildings that encroach only on current bluff and steep slope setbacks (not those that encroach on other required setbacks) are already within the Rural Heritage district, and the current ordinance does allow the expansion of those structures within the district under certain conditions.
Another amendment under consideration would allow property owners to build homes on parcels under 40 acres in size if plans were recorded prior to the new ordinance taking effect in 2011. Homes destroyed by fire or other natural disasters could be rebuilt, and road access to a new home would be allowed through an easement on neighboring property. Additionally, the 2010 ordinance states that all land uses that are not specifically listed in the zoning ordinance are unlawful; one of the amendments would reword the section to allow the Planning Director to decide whether a land use is appropriate if it is not specifically addressed in the ordinance.