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Agencies critique Comp Plan draft (07/28/2014)
By Chris Rogers
Familiar clashes between property rights advocates and environmental protection supporters may flare up again as Winona County prepares its next Comprehensive Plan. On Monday, the Comprehensive Plan Committee will review comments on a preliminary draft of the county's next Comprehensive Plan and consider making revisions to the plan before forwarding it to the Planning Commission and County Board for final approval.

Over the next decade or more, how should Winona County balance property rights and environmental protection and what sorts of agriculture, development and industry should it encourage? Whatever language is finally approved will guide the issuing of permits and variances for years to come, as well as a likely revision of the zoning code.

Planning Commission member Don Evanson, who is also on the Comprehensive Plan Committee, and the Land Stewardship Project (LSP) had differing perspectives on the role of citizen survey responses in the plan.

In the preliminary draft plan, a few dozen citizens' responses to survey questions are included in the body of the plan.

"Isn't that unprecedented?" Evanson asked Environmental Services and Planning Director Jason Gilman. Gilman said that in the last Comprehensive Plan, public surveys were included as appendices. As appendices, past public survey responses were separated from the plan itself, Evanson observed. He said the survey responses should be put into an appendix or an entirely separate document.

Planning Commission member Steve Jacob, who is also a County Board member, noted that the plan was over 150 pages long, including the survey responses. "Was [including the responses in the body of the plan] the steering committee's idea or was that planning staff incorporating that into the document?" he asked Gilman. Gilman said that was simply the way the information had been presented, but that "there wouldn't be any harm in moving that to an appendix."

A range of views were expressed in the citizen survey responses, but recreation, natural beauty, and environmental protection were among the most common priorities of those surveyed.

In a letter on behalf of LSP, LSP organizer Doug Nopar praised the draft plan's recommendations to protect prime farmland and promote cluster development rather than suburban sprawl. However, he stated that the plan's policy recommendations did not match up with public input. Most of the citizens surveyed during the comprehensive planning process "placed high priorities on concerns such as protecting the natural beauty of the area, the bluffs, and the environment recreational opportunities and controls on industries that negatively impact the county," Nopar wrote. "Only a small fraction of respondents seemed to favor unimpeded development or property rights."

Nopar also argued the plan should focus more on protecting local groundwater, given the area's porous Karst geology and the high levels of nitrates in some rural wells, and it should consider efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

In its response to the plan, the Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) Board of Supervisors recommended removing "bioengineering" from a list of agricultural practices supported by the county.

At last month's Planning Commission meeting, Evanson also advocated for including a recommendation to remove local limits on feedlot size in the plan.

Organic farmer Jim Riddle, who is also the SWCD Board Chair, balked at the draft plan's inclusion of a statement that "feedlots go through hell to expand and cities expand without justification." Riddle responded, "This language is offensive, unprofessional and inflammatory. It has no place in the Comp Plan, but it does reflect the attitude toward regulation and environmental protection that is pervasive throughout the draft plan."

The Comprehensive Plan Committee will meet at 7 p.m. on Monday, July 28, upstairs at the Winona County Government Center at 177 Main Street, Winona. As required by state law, the Planning Commission and County Board will hold public hearings after the Comprehensive Plan Committee submits its final draft. 


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