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County to reopen zoning density debate

Fri, Apr 25th, 2003
Posted in Features

At last Tuesdays meeting of the Fillmore County Planning Commission, Commissioner Duane Bakke unveiled a new zoning ordinance amendment that would allow individual townships to select from a menu of choices that would determine how many homes are built in the township.

Additionally, each township would be allowed to change their selection on an annual basis.

The proposal by Mr. Bakke comes in response to the increasing number of townships enacting moratoriums on building houses, and subsequently developing their own township zoning ordinances. Earlier this month, Sumner Township became the fourth township in the county to place a moratorium on building permits for new homes.

As presented at the planning meeting, Mr. Bakkes plan would allow each township to select one of three options from three different categories: the number of dwellings per quarter-quarter section, the type of soils the dwellings could be built upon, and where rural residential subdivisions could be located.

Calling the new amendment, "County and Township Cooperative Optional Zoning," the language in the proposal states that, "It is the intent of the Fillmore County Board of Commissioners to enact a Zoning Ordinance designed to reflect a cooperative attitude with its townships in the administration of this Ordinance to the extent State Statutes will allow."

In the form presented by Mr. Bakke at the meeting and approved for a public hearing by the planning commission, township boards could choose one, two or four dwellings per quarter-quarter section (40 acres). The current zoning ordinance as amended last June allows two dwellings per quarter-quarter section and one 12-lot subdivision per section.

The townships could also choose one of three options on the location of dwellings. First choice would be the current ordinance that allows dwellings to be built on existing building sites or on land classified for the past 10 years by the assessor as pasture, wasteland, or woodland, or has a crop equivalency rating (CER) of 65 or less. The second choice would be to limit dwellings to existing or expanded building sites only, and the third choice would allow dwellings on any soils classification.

To complete the "menu" selection under the Cooperative Optional Zoning plan, a township could select one of three choices for regulating the location of rural subdivisions. Again, the first choice would be the current ordinance of one 12-lot subdivision per section with a minimum of 300 feet between subdivisions. The second choice would be the same as the first, except that the subdivisions could only be located on hard surfaced roads. The third choice in this category would be that all subdivisions must be annexed to an incorporated municipality, which, in effect, would ban rural residential subdivisions not adjacent to cities.

The Bakke Plan was received with verbal praise and even applause from the few county commissioners and township officers who were left at the meeting when the plan was presented.

While this new proposal would give the townships the option to decide how much and what type of residential development they want to have, it has the potential for creating a patchwork of different building densities across the county based solely on the independent decisions of each township board.

Commissioner Bakke admitted during the discussion that his plan could yield different zoning densities in every township, something he had argued against when he presented the current two-per-forty countywide plan to the board for approval last May.

However, Mr. Bakke stated at the planning meeting that, "With the way its going, were going to have it different in every township anyway. At least this way, every township wont have to have the expenses of doing their own zoning if they want to have a different number of houses."

While the plan represents a shift in policy for Commissioner Bakke, he stated that it is offered to the townships as an option they can choose instead of declaring a moratorium and implementing their own zoning ordinances. However, inherent in Mr. Bakkes plan is the assumption that the subdivision ordinance is the only point of contention with the townships that are implementing their own ordinances.

New plan combines

old options

The options that are presented in the latest Bakke plan were all scenarios that were examined during the zoning process that spanned two years and ended last June when the county board approved the new two-per-forty subdivision ordinance.

During that process, the planning commission ultimately recommended three different districts, A-1, A-2, and A-3, each with its own density of homes. Although the planning commission never defined the district boundaries, the districts were based on land use (cropland vs. woodland) and natural resources (scenic topography, bluffs, shoreline).

At one point in the process, maps were distributed to the townships for them to delineate the location of each different district within the township. But after most of the townships work was done, the county discarded the maps before they could get incorporated into a planning commission recommendation, noting that the result was a patchwork of different zoning densities that would be an administrative nightmare.

When the multiple-district plan got to the county board, it, too, was discarded under the weight of words like "discriminatory" and "treat everybody the same."

While the new Bakke plan is similar to the past proposal, the previous "district" concept allowed townships to designate different housing densities within the township based on land use or natural resource characteristics. This new plan indicates that the township would choose only one density for the entire township.

At first glance, it appears that the feared administrative nightmare of the district plan from last years discussions would still be a reality under this new plan.

For example, if a township chose one dwelling per quarter-quarter section and no rural subdivisions, it would have a density of 16 homes per section or 576 homes per township. This number could be reduced if the option of restricting homes to either an existing building site or soils of less than 65 CER were chosen.

If the neighboring township chose the less restrictive options of four homes per quarter-quarter section and allowed one 12-lot subdivision per section on any road, the density would be 76 homes per section or 2,736 homes per township. Again, this number could be reduced with restrictions on certain soil types.

Extend this type of decision making to every township across the county and the result could ultimately yield the type of patchwork zoning that the commissioners and many residents argued against during last years public hearings.

The case for township input

Since passage of the amended county ordinance last June, two townships have enacted building moratoriums and several subdivisions have been proposed on gravel roads. The Board of Adjustment also denied one request for a variance to build a home on more than 30 acres of prime agricultural soils.

While many of the townships are unhappy with the countys ordinance, it is not all for the same reason. Several townships have voiced their opinion that the countys ordinance is too restrictive. A look at recent subdivision applications in two different townships exemplifies the polarized views on development held by different townships within the county, making it more difficult to adopt a "one plan fits all" ordinance.

When the proposed Bucknell Subdivision in Sumner Township came before the planning commission for approval last February, the hearing room was packed with residents opposed to the 12-lot development, including two of the three township supervisors.

Despite the opposition to the development, the planning commission seemed to have no alternative but to approve it. Since then, Sumner has implemented a building moratorium and announced that it will begin work on its own more restrictive subdivision ordinance.

On the other hand, at last weeks planning meeting, a 12-lot subdivision in Preble and Newburg Townships was approved after a public hearing where only one local resident expressed safety concerns about the proposed additional traffic on the township gravel road. One supervisor from the impacted townships was present at the hearing and he admitted he knew nothing about the application as he was newly elected to his position.

When the county board held a public hearing last May on the proposed ordinance change to two-per-forty, the commissioners were taken to task by many township officers for discarding the township maps and not listening to the townships when finalizing the subdivision ordinance.

At that time, the county board felt that it was compromising between those who wanted more development and those who didnt, while at the same time trying to preserve the countys prime agricultural soils.

Since then, many townships have been vocal either in opposition or support of the countys current two-per-forty subdivision ordinance. One certain result of this new Bakke plan would be to move the debate to the countys township halls, and generate new discussions, or debates, at that grassroots level.

Ordinance getting

more complicated

Throughout the zoning process, Commissioner Bakke has continually stated that, "Zoning is a work in progress."

Since the county approved the amended subdivision ordinance last spring, the planning commission has reviewed a barrage of zoning amendments either instigated by Mr. Bakke himself, or instigated by the countys zoning administrator in response to an application from someone who wants to do, or is already doing, something that is not allowed in the current ordinance.

At last weeks meeting alone, the planning commission either approved or opened discussions on nine different amendments to the zoning ordinance covering issues from country inn designations to farmers markets to exceptions for building on prime agricultural soils.

Under the new Bakke plan, each year the townships would be able to "choose which option in each set of options it wishes to select for the upcoming year." According to the plan, the change would have to be made no later than 14 days following the first township board meeting after the annual township meeting.

Undoubtedly, this shifting density option would allow the townships to react quickly to developments that either present themselves as opportunities or threats. From an administrative viewpoint, with 24 townships in the county, each with a potentially different subdivision ordinance that can change every year, the workload could prove challenging.

From a landowner, land value, and comprehensive planning perspective, it is difficult to predict what effect 24 different subdivision ordinances that could change annually based on township perceptions would have upon the countys ability to attract economic growth or sustain its agricultural heritage.

From the perspective of trying to make everybody happy, which is what Mr. Bakke seems to be trying to do, it might work. And then again, it might not.

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