by CHRIS ROGERS
Last February, a little-known board made one of the biggest decisions of the year in Winona County politics. After months of environmental review and state permitting, it came down to five citizens on the Winona County Board of Adjustment (BOA). By a one-vote margin, they rejected a variance request from the Daley Farm and prevented the farm from expanding.
Next week, the County Board will decide who should sit on the BOA and another influential committee, the Planning Commission. The Planning Commission helps rewrite zoning rules and considers permit requests. The BOA reviews requests for exceptions from zoning rules. Their decisions affect everything from frac sand to feedlots.
Picking committee members has often been a contentious decision for the County Board because it can determine the balance of power in the county’s long-running tug-of-war between environmental advocates — whom Winona-based commissioners often favor — and property-rights supporters frequently backed by rural commissioners.
Next Tuesday, the County Board will appoint one new member to the BOA and elect the County Board chair for 2020. The new chair alone will appoint one new Planning Commissioner member after getting input from the full County Board.
Last year, County Board members Marie Kovecsi, Chris Meyer, and Greg Olson voted 3-2 to scrap the board’s tradition of taking turns as chair. It had been Jacob’s turn to become chair, but Kovecsi, Meyer, and Olson opted to elect Kovecsi as chair instead. That allowed Kovecsi to appoint Patrick Byron and Lynn Carlson to the Planning Commission, two citizens who had spoken out about agricultural pollution in groundwater. Byron specifically raised concerns about the Daley expansion in public comments to state agencies. Kovecsi, Olson, and Meyer also voted 3-2 last year to appoint to the BOA citizens who had also opposed the Daley Farm expansion in public comments. Those appointments came just before the Daley Farm sought a variance from the BOA and — if the variance had been approved — just before the farm would have sought a conditional use permit from the Planning Commission.
“Yeah, I felt like I had the rug pulled out from under me last year,” Jacob said of the chairship. “The biggest thing that goes with being chair is the power that goes with appointing the Planning Commission, and I’m sure Chris, Greg, and Marie just didn’t want a rural [County Board] member to be appointing members to the Planning Commission,” he added.
At the time, Kovecsi said constituents were counting on the County Board to stand up for local water quality. “If I support [rotating the chairship], I’d be abdicating representation for district one, and I can’t support that,” Meyer said last year, referring to her district.
Rural County Board member Marcia Ward is currently vice chair. “A lot of times the vice chair has moved into the chair position, but given how things happened last year with the chair position, I’d be surprised if Greg and Marie allow Marcia to become the chair,” Jacob stated. “I’ll make the case for the people I believe are the most qualified candidates. I guess Chris, Greg, and Marie are going to put whoever they want in regardless of what case Marcia and I make,” he continued.
Kovecsi was not immediately available for comment.
It is unclear what the County Board will do with the chairship or the BOA appointments, but this year the stakes may be slightly lower than last year. The Daley Farm’s permit applications are no longer on the horizon, and — regardless of what new members are appointed — a majority of members on both the BOA and the Planning Commission will be citizens appointed by Winona-based County Board members.
“There was a lot visible right on the forefront, right on the horizon last year,” Jacob noted. “So there was probably a different sense of urgency, but as a rural commissioner I feel that urgency every year.” He continued, “My sense is that it’s important to have qualified people every year. You just don’t know what’s going to come up.”
Assuming the County Board follows its past practice of reappointing members eligible for another term, there will be one open seat on the BOA and one open seat on the Planning Commission.
Mike Flynn and Rich Mikrut are the only new applicants for the Planning Commission. Flynn is a well-known dentist and the chair of the rural Hillsdale Town Board who served on the county’s 2014 Comprehensive Plan Committee. Mikrut is a Winona industrialist and Winona County Economic Development Authority member. His McConnon Drive intermodal terminal in Winona shipped frac sand in the early days of the sand mining boom.
Mikrut, Winona Property Management owner and former Goodview City Council member Michael Alexander, doctor of education and Altura resident Elizabeth Heublein, and Winona County Soil and Water Conservation District Board Supervisor and Ridgeway-area farmer Andy Kronebusch have applied for the BOA.
“There’s certainly qualified candidates in that pool,” Jacob stated.