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County zoning changes debated (11/10/2013)
By Sarah Squires
Critics of proposed changes to the Winona County zoning ordinance have often said that it is not a "city versus rural resident" issue, but following a heated debate during the public hearing last Tuesday over the changes, it is clear that those who openly oppose the zoning amendments are predominantly city residents, while those who voiced support for them are nearly all rural landowners who would be most affected.

The zoning ordinance is the document used to regulate rural land use, from the construction of homes to the expansion of farm operations, and the rules do not apply to property within city limits. When the current zoning ordinance was approved in 2010 (it went into effect in 2011), criticism and support was similarly divided along rural and city lines. The 300-page document provided a host of new rules for county landowners, including measures meant to limit housing developments along blufftops, protections for areas that may contain Native American burial grounds, and other new provisions. The rules rendered many rural properties as "nonconforming," a label that limits a property owner's ability to expand his home or structure and his ability to rebuild it following a fire or other act of God.

The proposed amendments (see adjacent story for more details) would remove the nonconforming label from structures that were in compliance with the rules when they were built, but are nonconforming under the new ordinance. Those structures would be added to the current Rural Heritage district, and allowed to be expanded within a 300-foot radius without the need for a permit.

The amendments were proposed by Winona County Board member Steve Jacob, who campaigned on a promise to amend the controversial ordinance. He says the amendments are the result of compromise between his constituents — who originally sought to remove the new ordinance entirely — and those who support the regulating document. New construction, he has noted, will still be required to follow the setbacks and other regulations contained in the zoning ordinance.

Prior to the start of the public hearing, County Board Chair Wayne Valentine introduced rules of decorum for speakers, and prohibited speakers from accusing any commissioner of having a conflict of interest that would compromise his vote on the proposed amendments. Jacob has faced accusations that, because he owns property on a blufftop overlooking Whitewater State Park and has developed homes there, his support of the amendments he has proposed would present such a conflict. County Attorney Karin Sonneman, however, has negated these claims, and issued a legal opinion explaining that the ordinance change was considered a "quasi-legislative" action and does did not present a conflict. "Personal attacks really have no place here," she explained prior to the hearing. For the most part, those who spoke at the hearing did not engage in criticism that violated the rules Valentine introduced.

Most who spoke against the ordinance amendments indicated opposition to the change that would allow blufftop homes and farm structures to be expanded without a permit, fearing the relaxed regulations would result in homes dangling from blufftops, causing erosion, and disputes because farmers could expand agricultural operations toward neighboring properties without a permit.

Winona County resident Joe Morse, one of the few rural residents who spoke against the proposed ordinance changes, and who is a bluff protection advocate, objected to the amendment that would allow homes on the bluff to be expanded. He asked that the board consider using a "viewshed analysis" tool to help determine whether developments would be seen from below before allowing property owners to build close to the tops of bluffs, a tool that the board asked be explored by the Planning Department in 2010, but was not. "This ordinance is a compromise from what a lot of us wanted," he said. "Good fences make good neighbors; good rules make good neighbors. We don't need more conflict in the county."

Jake Shetler, a member of the county's Amish community, was one of several Amish men who spoke in favor of the ordinance changes. "The 2011 ordinance has been nothing but a financial hardship for us," he said of his community, adding that he applied for a conditional use permit in April 2012, but it wasn't awarded until January.

Winona County Farm Bureau President Glen Groth spoke on behalf of the bureau, and said its menbers had voted to support the amendments, following careful research. The amendments would produce positives for farmers, he said, such as the reduced need for permits and the ability of farmers to invest in operations. There were some concerns expressed by bureau members about the potential for new residential growth to fragment crop land, but, "When it comes down to it, the Farm Bureau is going to support property rights and good government," he said.

"There are other rights, other than just property rights," Jane Cowgill, who spoke against the amendments, told the board. "There are rights to peace and to health and to the happiness of future generations."

The Winona County Board may take a final vote on the amendments on Tuesday, November 12, at 9 a.m. at the Winona County Government Center on Main Street in Winona.



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