In their last strategic planning session, Winona County Board members found common ground on one of the great challenges facing the county, the need to attract and retain more young people, but were divided on the role of regulation in addressing the problem. In particular, debate over the role of zoning in protecting Winona County's assets or hamstringing opportunities for growth — depending on whom you ask — surfaced as a key point in the discussion of the county's longterm future.
"We lose our college graduates to bigger cities because those opportunities aren't here," said commissioner Greg Olson at the October 1 meeting. Winona County's beauty does win people's hearts, but "how do you balance that idealistic idea of the hometown you remember with being a place where [Winona is] the hometown and you can have the opportunity for advanced positions?" he added.
In order to keep the community vital, it needs to be "open for business," said commissioner Steve Jacob, reciting a campaign motto. "Are we as open as other places? Are there more taxes and regulatory red tape? Is it tough to get permits?" As it stands, Winona County has a reputation for having onerous zoning rules, he continued.
Commissioner Jim Pomeroy questioned that viewpoint, stating that conditional use permits (CUPs) for development and expansion projects have been infrequently turned down in recent years. "Even those areas where a CUP is needed, you've had a board that is very open to whatever expansion or whatever needs to be done," he said.
"It starts when they come to that counter right there," Jacob returned, pointing to the front desk where property owners would begin project applications. Just because the County Board did not turn them down does not mean that they were not told they were ineligible for a CUP, he said. Constituents have often told him, Jacob went on, "'Yeah you can get a CUP approved in Winona County if you hire the right engineer and the right attorney.'" He added, "There's certainly a perception in our community that we're tough to do business with here." That, he said, is driving away would-be entrepreneurs and expanding businesses.
Commissioner Marcia Ward agreed, saying, "Our Houston and Fillmore County neighbors say that our county is a lot more restrictive than our neighboring counties to get something built." Board chair Wayne Valentine nodded in agreement and went on to say that he finds the rise of regulation across the country in his lifetime troubling.
Regulation is not always bad, Pomeroy said. "Part of that has to do with being able to respect neighbors," he said in response to a suggestion by Jacob that Winona County regulations were unwelcoming. Respecting neighbors "is what zoning is all about," Pomeroy stated.
"I'll give you an example in Winona: the whole rental industry around Winona State," Olson chimed in. "The city reacted to that because we had whole neighborhoods turning to rentals. It was causing problems so we put restrictions on that," he continued. "Well, there are people up in arms about the restrictions, suing the city." Property rights advocates may not like the 30 percent rule that limits the number of rental properties on a given block, but it serves a real constitutent interest: people do not want their homes to be surrounded by rentals, he explained. "There's that whole balancing act," he added, explaining that many citizens were complaining that the city should have used strong zoning to address the issue sooner, he added. "Zoning can be good. It's a double edged sword."