In the next few months, public hearings will be held, amendments may be proposed, and votes will be taken to approve the plan that will guide Winona County land policy and decision-making for the next decade: the comprehensive plan. Last week, citizens took to the microphone at a County Board meeting to express frustration with the process behind the new draft plan, including the makeup of the board-appointed Comprehensive Plan Committee.
The comprehensive plan update is the latest chapter in the ongoing saga of Winona County land policy. Township officers across rural Winona County were unanimous in rejecting the last comprehensive plan. It passed despite the opposition; however, townships are better represented for the current update. Property rights group Land Owners of Winona County (LWC) protested when the 2011 zoning ordinance was passed. Since then, LWC leader Steve Jacob was elected to the County Board and led last year's push to ease bluff and feedlot setbacks for existing properties. Once it is finalized, the new comprehensive plan will guide updates to the zoning ordinance that are likely to follow the plan.
Currently, some are claiming the makeup of the Comprehensive Plan Committee is biased, while others note its members reflect positions of the majority of the elected County Board.
At last week's meeting, Doug Nopar of the Land Stewardship Project (LSP) told the County Board that during public input sessions for the draft comprehensive plan, citizens voiced support for small farms, opposition for frac sand mining, and voiced minimal support for property rights. "The committee largely failed to incorporate this input, putting property rights language in that is highly debatable and not at all a consensus in the county," he stated.
Nopar and others had previously criticized the draft plan for listing "bioengineered" crops as a form of agriculture that the county supports, for supporting regulated frac sand mining, for stating that rural residents may not have the ability to sue their neighbors over normal agricultural practices, and for not addressing climate change.
The comprehensive plan includes policy goals for preserving agriculture, conserving natural resources, and managing urbanization.
"This is really a stacked committee and its work shows. It's coming out with what you'd expect from a stacked committee," asserted Joe Morse, of rural Winona. The County Board appointed owners of some of the county's largest farms which Morse described as factory farms over nominees that supported bluff land and water quality protections and opposed frac sand mining, Morse stated. Morse and Winona resident Todd Paddock criticized commissioners Marcia Ward, Wayne Valentine, and Steve Jacob for not supporting such nominees.
"So I urge you, please correct these mistakes you made earlier before going forward with the process," Morse said.
Jacob: this is democracy
In an interview, Jacob said that critics' claims that the comprehensive plan update process was unfair Paddock said the County Board failed to uphold the principles of democracy were frustrating to hear. "I was standing at the podium in their position three or four years ago," he added, referring to his time as an unelected property rights advocate petitioning the previous board. "I wished I could have been on those committees. I certainly would have thought it would have been a privilege to serve on these steering committees, but I couldn't get appointed because the board wasn't appointing anyone who has property rights values," he explained.
"Five to 10 years ago, Doug Nopar, Todd Paddock, and Joe Morse were very happy with how the system worked because the people they wanted to see on those committees were being appointed," Jacob continued. Then, LWC decided to get involved in the political process, leading to Jacob's election, he stated. The shift in the County Board majority was a direct result of landowners' frustrations at being excluded from past land policy decisions, he said. "Everything is playing out exactly as it should," he added. "If Mr. Morse, Mr. Nopar, and Mr. Paddock have issues with that, then they need to get involved, and I think they are [doing so] with the candidates they are supporting." Jacob continued, "It's exactly democracy in action, and it is the same democracy they've been happy with [during] the last 10 years."
Jacob said that last year's zoning amendments do not abolish bluff land protections and feedlot restrictions for new properties, but offer compromises for existing structures. "What a great compromise, and these environmental extremists don't have any room for compromise in them," he stated. "The environmental extremists are trying to paint the general public the people who really care, who own a lot of this property and live under these regulations they're trying to paint them as people who have complete disregard for our environment, and that's not the case."
Ward: plan not as divisive as critics claim
The appointments to the Comprehensive Plan Committee were not made on a 3-2 split, Ward pointed out in an interview, responding to citizens' criticisms. Urban commissioner Jim Pomeroy joined Ward, Valentine, and Jacob in voting 4-1 to approve the committee appointments, though Pomeroy's motion to appoint former Planning Commission member Jessica Heiden was voted down 2-3 with Ward, Valentine, and Jacob opposing it. Ward made a motion to include more of the nominees in the committee, but it failed.
Ward said that while critics are describing the committee as devoid of environmentalists, there are numerous Farm Bureau members who support conservation practices and other conservation-minded farmers like Leon Bowman, of Wilson Township. "Everyone who lives out in the country and on the land is an environmentalist," she said.
"It is a committee that four county commissioners agreed to put in place," she said. "I asked a lot of people to put in a lot of hard work to put together the plan. I can't disregard their hard work just because one side is claiming it's wrong."
In a memo to the County Board, Environmental Services and Planning Director Jason Gilman, who led the plan update process, wrote, "Early criticism of the committee makeup (some characterized the group as being largely anti-regulation), proved to be largely unfounded as there were many ensuing thoughtful debates by the committee over the careful balance between leaving a lasting land use legacy
and not being too heavy headed [so] as to stifle business growth, investment, and personal freedoms."
Olson: update was not inclusive
Commissioner Greg Olson cast the lone vote against the Comprehensive Plan Committee appointments last year. In a recent interview he said, "I think it is the duty of the board chair in these situations and the duty of all commissioners to appoint and include [citizens representing] all facets of interest, and I do not believe that happened for this committee."
Olson compared the criticism of the current committee with previous problems with inclusivity during the 2000 comprehensive plan update, saying, "Part of the criticism of the previous comprehensive plan is that we didn't have enough township and rural input. [Now] we've created a document that could prove to be even more controversial than the last one."
Olson continued, "There's certainly a political divide, and it's too bad that the document has become so political." He added, "I'm very frustrated by the process. The process has become political, and a good bunch of rural interests have been excluded from the document."
The Planning Commission is expected to hold a public hearing on the evening of Thursday, September 18, before making a recommendation to the County Board. Another public hearing will be held before the County Board before a final plan is adopted.