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County Board approves zoning amendments (11/13/2013)
By Chris Rogers
The proposed Winona County zoning amendments have passed. In a split vote of the Winona County Board, the most fiercely debated amendments were approved: a motion to expand the Rural Heritage district, and a motion to allow development without a permit for parcels under 40 acres recorded before 2011. A unanimous vote passed other elements of the proposed amendments: provisions allowing homes destroyed by disaster to be rebuilt, allowing road access to parcels to be provided through easements, and allowing land uses not specifically listed in the ordinance to be permitted if it is deemed equivalent to listed uses. The full board also voiced support for a move to remove language calling for the elimination of all nonconformities. The board approved that change.

Commissioners Greg Olson and Jim Pomeroy attempted to strike a last-minute compromise with the other three commissioners on the Rural Heritage district amendment. "We're close to having a unanimous vote on this, but the language as proposed I can't stand," Olson said, indicating his willingness to support an altered proposal and the potential for the board to reach longed-for consensus on the divisive issue. "What's your alternative?" asked commissioner Marcia Ward.

The Rural Heritage district is a special "grandfathered in" zoning district. The amendment to the district will exempt pre-2011 structures from feedlot and bluff setbacks within a 300-foot radius of such structures. Those exemptions, which could allow barns to be built closer to neighbors or decks to be built closer to bluffs, were one of the greatest causes of concern among opponents. Olson and Pomeroy proposed altering those setback exemptions from the "grandfathered in" zone, meaning that Rural Heritage district structures abutting a bluff or feedlot could be expanded in a semicircle, as Olson described it, away from bluff or feedlot, but not toward it.

Olson and Pomeroy's proposal failed. "I did give quite a bit of thought to that concept," Ward said of the semicircle proposal. "But I have been urged by my constituency to take the amended language as it is and vote it up or vote it down, not to reword it." Ward explained in a previous interview that she had discussed the amended semicircle concept with county administration, but she did not voice support for it before the final vote.

Jacob opposed Olson and Pomeroy's semicircle proposal, arguing that the board should not make such a significant change without public comment, especially after months of vetting the proposal before. "For us to vote on anything other than the work done by the community is not fair to them," he commented. Ward pointed out that many of the rural structures the amendment hopes to relieve are blocked by feedlot setbacks on either side, leaving no semicircle in which to expand.

Board chair Valentine, who amendment opponents had hoped might cast a swing vote in their favor, voiced his support for the proposal. "There has been talk of compromise; I would venture to say this is a compromise," Valentine said, saying many urged him to repeal the 2010 zoning ordinance entirely. He continued that when the 2010 ordinance was approved, supporters stressed that "it was was a living, breathing document that was easily amended." Nine months after the amendments were proposed, "I'm ready to do just that," he added. Valentine explained that there has been resounding support for the amendments from citizens, and criticized opponents for resorting to "name calling," threats of political backlash, and "intimidation."

Currently, elected officials can moderate disputed developments through Conditional Use Permits (CUPs) and variances, but under the proposal, many expansions of agricultural buildings and bluff top development would no longer be subject to such review, Pomeroy pointed out. "The concern that I have is that in those expansions, there is no review for an aggrieved party and no recourse for an aggrieved party," he explained. "We could have farmer against farmer and neighbor against neighbor without any right of review or recourse," he added.

When considering land use regulations, the board ought to recognize "the impact that agriculture does have on us all," said Olson, referencing studies released by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency on high levels of nitrates in local groundwater, likely due in part to agricultural runoff. In an interview after the split vote to approve the amendments, Olson said he was disappointed by the board majority's unwillingness to approve the semicircle proposal. "I think we could have covered most of the concerns from both partners by modifying the amendment," he said.

Valentine said he values the bluffs where he hiked and hunted as a boy, but that "I have learned over my lifetime that farmers and those who live in the rural area have a great respect and love of the land and the environment. I am confident that when it comes to issues of bluffland development, feedlot setbacks, and Indian burial grounds, they will do the right thing."

"I can take the bullying, I can take the personal attacks, the insults," Jacob commented. "But when people attack my constituents as not being capable of being good stewards of their property, that's what brings out the fight in me," he continued. If the 2010 ordinance were up for a vote today, it would be unlikely to pass, he stated. However, rather than throw away that work and eliminate restrictions for future development, the amendments provide relief to existing properties only, he explained. "We're offering a compromise; we understand that people want these restrictions into the future; this respects that," he said. As for threats of political backlash against commissioners who supported the amendments, Jacob said that they reminded him of the political repercussions in the past. Jacob defeated incumbent Mena Kaehler last year on a platform of zoning reform, ushering in a new majority to the board. 


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