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Taking charge of change

Fri, Feb 16th, 2001
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Fillmore County leaders to meet on zoning issues By Mike McGrathMonday, February 19, 2001

On the last Monday evening of this month, the Fillmore County Board will hold a joint meeting with the Fillmore County Planning Commission to discuss land use planning and zoning issues that face the county in these changing times. A joint meeting of the County Board and the Planning Commission is a rare event, but it may signal the beginning of a new era of commissioner involvement in planning policies that govern land use.

This meeting comes at a time when changes are taking place in county leadership. At the beginning of the year, 2nd District Commissioner Helen Bicknese assumed the duties of Chair of the Board. Bicknese has been on the Board since 1994.

Joining Chair Bicknese at the commissioners table are two new commissioners, Marc Prestby and Randy Dahl, whose predecessors had a total of 42 years experience on the County Board. In April, the number of new commissioners will increase to three when the 3rd District elects a replacement for Gary Peterson, who recently resigned from the Board after sixteen years in office.

Rounding out the Board is two-year veteran commissioner Duane Bakke, a farmer representing the 4th District, and also the only commissioner who sits on the Planning Commission.

When the County Board and the Planning Commission meet next week, there will likely be discussion about subdivisions in the rural areas, the number of non-farm homes that should be allowed in the agricultural district, and even whether or not the county should allow bunkhouses for hunting parties. Other discussions may include feedlots and resorts, though feedlots have not been as much of an issue at planning commission meetings as they were several years ago.

External pressures

In state demographic reports, Fillmore County has long been considered a poor county. In spite of this notoriety, the demand for Fillmore County land is not waning. In fact, prices have raised steadily since the late 1990s, fueled by a demand for agricultural land, recreation property, and affordable single family homes in the budding "bedroom" communities of Chatfield, Rushford, and Spring Valley.

However, along with those higher prices have come higher property taxes. Many areas of the county were reassessed in 2000, and some property owners who saw significant increases in their property values are now bracing themselves for the increased tax payments that will soon be due.

The demand for Fillmore County land not only increases property values and subsequently raises taxes, it also increases the challenges which local governments face in deciding how development can occur. Traditionally, in the unincorporated areas it has been county government that decides what kind of development should happen and where it should go.

However, Minnesota statutes allow several layers of local government to make those planning decisions for their own jurisdictions, and in Fillmore County there are several at work right now. At the county level, at the township level, and at the city level, different, independent actions are being taken to try to answer the how, what, and where of the land use debate.

Fillmore County Planning Commission

At the beginning of this year, the Fillmore County Planning Commission elected Mike Tuohy as its new chair. Mike has served on the Planning Commission and also gets a first hand view of some of Fillmore Countys recent growth from his hometown of Chatfield, one of the fastest growing areas of the county.

During a recent telephone interview, when asked what his goals were for the Commission in 2001, he responded, "Im not sure yet. I need to listen a little longer."

Acknowledging that there are a number of issues related to growth that need to be resolved, Tuohy referred to the upcoming session with the County Board as a "sounding board" meeting, an opportunity for the two groups to discuss some of the existing ordinances and how they might be changed to accommodate the demand for development without compromising the Countys agriculture industry.

Last year, the Planning Commission formed a citizen advisory committee to look at the non-farm home policy in the ordinance, and to make recommendations to the Commission on subdivisions and the density of non-farm homes in rural, unincorporated areas. The first recommendation to come forth from that committee is to restrict all subdivisions to within one-half mile of an incorporated city. No action was taken on that recommendation, and the committee was asked to study it some more.

For Mike Tuohy, there are a lot of interests that need to be balanced. He favors a broad discussion on land use planning between the county, the townships and even the cities to look at what areas can accommodate growth.

In a discussion on the current ordinances, Tuohy asks, "Is the one-half mile subdivision limit right? Cities can control out two miles, should we set it at two miles?"

Referring to the one non-farm home per quarter-quarter section rule in Fillmore County, Tuohy also asks if this is a fair regulation. Many have complained of this type of ordinance because once a home is built in the quarter-quarter section no other parcels on that 40 acres may be developed.

Recognizing the increased demand for the countys woodlands, Tuohy asks, "What about the farmers woodlots? The unused woodlot on the farm is a dead asset unless the farmer can sell it. If he can sell a bad woodlot at a good price for a nice home site then that can help the farmer to stay on the land."

Tuohy seems to realize that the challenge to planners is to get people to talk, to help each other to understand the interests of others. "Whatever we do needs to be a positive to the tax base and not a negative," explained Tuohy.

Township and City Planning

In Jordan Township, in the northwest part of the county, the Town Board may not agree with the way the Fillmore County Planning Commission has dealt with the new demand for rural property.

Frustrated with the countys zoning ordinance and also with the administration of that ordinance by the county zoning office, the Jordan Township board enacted a moratorium last year that allows new home construction only on parcels of 160 acres or greater.

"Something had to be done," says Jordan Township Board supervisor Lyle Greenlee. "We didnt like the way the county was handling itwe were getting too many new houses in the country."

The moratorium was just the first step for Jordan Township. The township board is meeting this week with an attorney to begin the process of drafting their own zoning ordinance and implementing it. Minnesota statutes allow townships to have their own planning and zoning. However, the cost of developing and administrating a program is usually a deterrent for a rural township.

Jordan Township is not alone in their action. Chatfield Township also enacted a temporary moratorium on new home construction last year. Prompted by new subdivision proposals in rural areas, the Chatfield Township board is investigating what options they have in controlling their own destiny through township zoning.

The state of Minnesota also allows incorporated cities to have review and approval authority over all subdivisions within a two-mile radius of the citys boundaries. Using this law as a tool, and in response to an application for a three-lot subdivision just outside of its boundaries, the City of Lanesboro enacted a one-year moratorium on subdivisions within two miles of its borders.

Lanesboro just recently extended its city sewer service to accommodate about 45 new lots in the southeast part of the city and would like to encourage growth in that area.

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