Signed by Land Stewardship Project members and
Two weeks ago, Winona County Board Chairman Wayne Valentine and commissioner Marcia Ward demonstrated little hint of the kind of compromise we would normally expect from local government leaders. They voted 3-2, lockstep with commissioner Steve Jacob, to reduce bluff land protection, farmland preservation, and feedlot setback rules in the county zoning ordinance.
At the Land Stewardship Project, we place great value on the long-term care of the land, protection of family-sized farms, and respect for a healthy democracy. In the days before the November 12 vote, we proposed a compromise to County Board members urging them to reject commissioner Jacob’s two most controversial proposals. We asked them to adopt three of commissioner Jacob’s technical amendments to the land use ordinance dealing with rebuilding rural homes after disasters, driveway access, and personal use of property. These three amendments had provoked only minimal concern. Yet, this compromise was completely disregarded by the board majority.
On the morning of the vote, another compromise suggested by commissioners Greg Olson and Jim Pomeroy was also rejected outright by Valentine, Ward and Jacob. That proposal would have allowed some development and expansion within 300 feet of existing structures, as long as that construction occurred in a direction away from a bluff top or neighboring farm.
In the months leading up to this vote, at public hearings, in the press, and in communication with commissioners, there was considerable public outcry about commissioner Jacob’s zoning amendments. These changes will now undo parts of the bluff land protection rules passed only three years ago, will weaken feedlot expansion rules passed in the 1990s, and will take some zoning rules literally back to 1970.
We were surprised at the November 5 County Board public hearing that chairman Valentine prohibited the public from raising concerns that a commissioner had conflicts of interest. And we are troubled that chairman Valentine and commissioner Ward did not publicly urge commissioner Jacob to fully disclose the nature of his landholdings potentially affected by his proposals. In the spirit of open, transparent local government, that would have been the ethical thing to do. Instead of protecting the best of local democracy, however, Valentine and Ward chose to protect Jacob.
In her analysis of Jacob’s potential conflict of interest, Winona County Attorney Karin Sonneman said that while she believed that Jacob did not have a legal conflict of interest, “…it behooves any public official to avoid the appearance of impropriety in their actions regarding matters under consideration before the public body on which they serve.”
At the Winona County Board’s long-term planning meeting in September, commissioners Valentine, Ward and Jacob expressed concern about “special interests” that sought to protect the bluffs and restrict frac sand developments in the county. Chairman Valentine actually called these groups “the greatest threat to Winona County.”
When you add in their labeling of frac sand opponents and bluff protection advocates as “special interest” threats, their pro-frac sand votes from the past eight months, and their November 12 vote to weaken land protections in the county, you see a picture of a board governing in an extreme direction, a direction favoring short-term financial gains for a few, over the long term interests of us all.