A set of zoning amendments that have given rise to lengthy arguments about rural regulation and development since they were proposed last spring will come before the Winona County Board for a final vote on Tuesday, November 12, at 9 a.m. (See sidebar for information on the proposed amendments.) The board held a public hearing on the amendments yesterday evening, after the Winona Post went to press.
At board meeting yesterday morning before the evening public hearing, commissioner Steve Jacob suggested that the board have a discussion about whether it would vote on the amendments immediately after the hearing or at its meeting next week, "just so that the public is clear on the policy."
"The precedent for the County Board has been not to vote after a public hearing," responded County Administrator Duane Hebert. "That has been pretty much our procedure in the past," agreed board chair Wayne Valentine, who also voiced his support for that approach.
The board scheduled the special evening public hearing in order to make sure as many working people as possible were able to voice their thoughts on amendments that have evoked strong feelings from both supporters and opponents. The board agreed not to vote on the amendments directly after the hearing, but rather at next week's morning meeting.
Jacob said he was agreeable to that plan, but was concerned that the board's 10-minute public comment session at the beginning of its meetings might be used as "another mini-public hearing," one that not all citizens might be aware of. Would the county need to provide legal notice of the comment session as a public hearing and would allowing comment on the amendments "be fair to those who attended the public hearing if they wanted to be aware of all the information that was being addressed by the public?" Jacob asked. County Attorney Karin Sonneman said she would to look into the question of legal notice.
Perhaps the county should restrict comments on the amendments during that comment period; "that way we just have one public hearing and know when it is," Jacob suggested. "I think it could be problematic for some people who come to one [meeting] not expecting they need to make two trips in to see what other people are addressing," he explained.
"My concern is letting people speak, but telling them what they can and can't speak about is probably a First Amendment issue," said commissioner Jim Pomeroy, referring to free speech rights.
Commissioner Marcia Ward proposed the board simply enforce its 10-minute total time limit on public comment before the board meeting. "We have been flexible on that in the past, but we put that in writing for a reason. If we're going to follow our own rule that is what it says," she stated.
What the amendments would change
• Owners of parcels under 40 acres in size would be allowed to build a home, as long as the parcel was recorded prior to the ordinance taking effect in 2011. The amendment would not allow a property owner to split a parcel into a lot smaller than 40 acres and build without seeking a conditional use permit; only those parcels that were split prior to the ordinance would be covered under the change. Prior to the current zoning ordinance taking effect, county landowners were allowed to build a house without a permit, and without owning the full 40 acres, as long as the home would be the only non-farm dwelling contained in the 40-acre section. Under the current ordinance, a person must actually own a 40-acre plat of land in order to build without a permit.
• The ordinance would expand the Rural Heritage district to include homes and other structures that were legal when they were constructed but rendered "nonconforming" under the 2010 zoning ordinance. Currently, the Rural Heritage district only includes structures that would have been considered nonconforming under the ordinance because they are located within the bluff setback area. Under the change, all such nonconforming properties would buck the "nonconforming" label and fall within the Rural Heritage district. The current Rural Heritage district rules allow for structures within bluff setbacks to be expanded in certain situations; under the proposed amendment changes, all structures within the Rural Heritage district would be allowed to expand within a 300-foot radius. Farmers would be allowed to expand feedlots within that 300-foot radius, but any increases in animal units would require a feedlot permit.
• Homes destroyed by fire or other natural disasters could be rebuilt.
• Road access to a new home would be allowed through an easement on neighboring property.
• Language that currently states all land uses not specifically listed in the ordinance are unlawful would be amended; the new language would reword the section to allow the planning director the ability to determine whether a land use is appropriate if not specifically listed in the ordinance.