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Township election pivotal to Sumner’s future


Fri, Mar 7th, 2003
Posted in Features

When the Fillmore County Planning Commission signed off on the Conditional Use Permit for the proposed Sumner Township subdivision known as Washington Country Estates, it fueled a debate that could ultimately be decided by Sumner Township residents in tomorrow’s township officer elections.

The proposed eight-lot subdivision, located eight miles north of Spring Valley at the site of an unincorporated village called Washington, is really a bi-product of a bigger issue that residents in Sumner Township are facing. How they deal with that issue may depend on which one of three different candidates they choose for one open supervisor position on the town board.

Located at the very northwest corner of Fillmore County, Sumner Township lies directly between Spring Valley to the south, and Rochester to the north. Just like its neighboring townships to the east, Jordan and Chatfield, Sumner Township is beginning to see an increase in rural home development and a corresponding increase in land prices.

As developers begin to look at Fillmore County for rural tracts that are suitable for residential subdivisions, they are clashing with some local residents and farmers who feel very strongly that the rural agricultural district is not a suitable place for residential subdivisions.

Sometimes the clash spills over into the township board meetings, bringing out strong feelings from the residents who support development and those who don’t.

Such is the case in Sumner Township, where residents are divided on whether subdivisions like Washington Country Estates should, or should not, be allowed.

The open position on the board is one that is being vacated by Dale Greene, leaving Matt Snyder and Keith Culver as the remaining supervisors. Mr. Snyder and Mr. Culver are on opposite sides of the subdivision debate, with Mr. Snyder opposed to rural subdivisions and Mr. Culver in favor of that type of growth.

The election to fill Mr. Greene’s seat on the board will determine which side of the subdivision debate gains the majority, resulting in either an "open door" policy for subdivision development, or a possible subdivision moratorium and the development of a Sumner Township zoning ordinance more restrictive than the county’s ordinance.

We need more people in Sumner…

Stafford Hansen, a long-time resident of Sumner Township is running for that supervisor position on an "open door" platform. In an interview with the Journal, Mr. Hansen was clear about his position, "We need more people in Sumner. More people will spread the tax base around…we need to be realistic."

"I feel the Washington (Country Estates) project is the highest and best use for that type of land," stated Mr. Hansen. "We could build more homes on the B and C land—a thousand homes on two-and-a-half-acre lots wouldn’t take much land out of production."

Mr. Hansen believes that the county’s zoning ordinance on development is too restrictive.

"I feel very strongly we need more people. School population is down, we need more people to build nice homes," said Hansen.

He also stated that he did not see that development of subdivisions would pose a threat to the farms or residents of the rural township.

"If they move into the country then they have to know that there will be more tractor noises and animal smells…it’s a trade-off for the quiet and beauty of living in the country," added Hansen.

On other township issues Mr. Hansen is satisfied with the present supervisors, but feels that the dire economic times will require taking another look at expensive road and bridge projects.

"My position is that the present supervisors are doing a good job, but that we need to grow at a reasonable rate. The main issue is zoning," he concluded.

What the majority tells us…

Just down the road from Stafford Hansen, but much further away in his beliefs on rural subdivisions, lives Tim Johnson, another candidate for the Sumner town board.

"I don’t believe that subdivisions should be in the country," stated Mr. Johnson in a phone interview. "Subdivisions need to be near the cities where they can be on utilities. I worry about the groundwater."

Like Stafford Hansen, Tim Johnson, who grew up in nearby Chatfield, also believes that zoning is the key issue facing the township. But unlike Mr. Hansen, Mr. Johnson believes that the county’s zoning ordinance is not restrictive enough.

Mr. Johnson favors a moratorium on subdivisions until the township can convene meetings of its residents to decide what the people want. If elected, Mr. Johnson said he would "form citizen groups to ask the people what they would like to see."

Tim Johnson also believes that the township’s unique geology should play a bigger role in deciding where subdivisions should be placed.

"Geology has to be brought in more as a factor…but the county doesn’t look at it that way," said Johnson. "East of County 1 is the start of the bluff country and I worry about groundwater contamination."

While Mr. Johnson favors limits, he also believes in a reasonable amount of growth.

"There’s got to be room for growth, but we can’t use up the Ag land. But, I also don’t think that people should have to own 160 acres, either," added Johnson.

"We have to do what the majority tells us, and keep our personal feelings out of the township board, concluded Mr. Johnson.

One rule can’t serve all

townships…

Rod Patten is a cattle producer who lives about a mile north of the proposed Washington Country Estates. Rod believes that the township board should have more say in what is allowed in the township. He thinks the people in Sumner Township need a better voice, and that’s why he has decided to run for the supervisor position.

"I’m not against building, but the county is so diverse, I’m not sure the county can pass one rule for all townships. The township should have more of a say," stated Mr. Patten by phone.

Mr. Patten believes that the townships need more authority to approve or deny, with good reason, any proposed subdivision application.

Like Tim Johnson, Rod also believes that the township needs to have a public process whereby the residents can meet and discuss what they want, away from the town board meetings where there have been "too many emotions."

While Mr. Patten is not sure the township should develop its own ordinance, he does believe that with more approval authority the township could look at each application based on the suitability of the site.

"We need tax dollars, but we don’t need houses popping up all over the place," commented Mr. Patten. "The cost of a road could be a burden to a township—all things aren’t always looked at by the county."

Mr. Patten also sees the county as part of the problem. "They weren’t listening to the residents," he said of the Fillmore County Planning Commission when they approved the Washington Country Estates subdivision.

"People in the township need a better voice, and it can’t just be my opinion—it has to be what the people want," he concluded.

Voters may decide the future…

During the county planning commission meeting on February 26, Randy and Penny Ness, farm neighbors of the proposed Washington Country Estates, presented the planning commission with a petition signed by 59 Sumner residents requesting that an Environmental Assessment Worksheet (EAW) be required for the subdivision.

Mr. Ness has now filed the EAW request and petition with the state Environmental Quality Board, an action that will require the county to review the need for an EAW before it can approve the subdivision.

While this action may slow, or put in question the approval of one subdivision, it may very well be the voters of Sumner Township who decide the future of subdivisions in their township when they go to the polls on Tuesday.

With three candidates to choose from, all of whom are very clear about where they stand on the issue, Sumner voters will have the opportunity to make a statement about what they want in the subdivision debate.

If, after the election, the township board chooses to develop its own more restrictive subdivision ordinance, it will be joining a trend started by its neighboring townships—both Jordan and Chatfield have implemented their own more restrictive ordinances in response to their dissatisfaction with the zoning policies of Fillmore County, and the desire of their residents to have more "say" in what happens in their township.

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