The concentration and continued proliferation of housing and business developments in Wright County is nothing new. It’s been more than 40 years in the making. In 1978, due to extremely rapid and uncontrolled growth in the northeast portion of Wright County along I-94, the Wright County Board of Commissioners developed a “Comprehensive Plan” designed to protect and preserve agricultural land in the county.
Over the years, that plan morphed into the county’s official Land Use Plan. At the Sept. 17 meeting of the Wright County Board of Commissioners, debate over the use of the Land Use Plan came to a head concerning a 32-acre property in Marysville Township that was given planning commission approval for a variance to be rezoned from general agriculture to Ag-residential, which would allow the property to be subdivided into buildable housing lots.
Commissioner Mike Potter asked that the consent agenda approval be pulled for discussion and said that, while he has no objection to the property owner making the proposal, it simply doesn’t fit the Land Use Plan because a mining operation is currently in business on the property.
“My concerns are that the timing is wrong on this, because there is a still a mining operation to be done with and it’s not,” Potter said. “It’s jumping the gun on giving the rezoning at this point in time. The other concern is that it’s outside the Land Use Plan. It’s not quite ready for that yet. It’s not in what’s called an Enterprise Zone. When you start deviating from the Land Use Plan, the more you deviate, it eventually will give us some trouble with other entities that may come forward.”
Potter made a motion to deny the request, but it failed for the lack of a second.
Planning & Zoning Administrator Sean Riley said that, while the property in question varies from the Land Use Plan, part of the request was that, if approved, the mining operation would cease and develop the portions of the 32 acres that can become buildable residential lots. He added that several properties in the immediate vicinity had been zoned ag-residential, but this one hadn’t been included until a request came forward.
“There really isn’t a standard or a policy that states if it’s contiguous with it, what does that mean – other than planning commission or county board opinions?” Riley said. “It’s not clearly stated that if it’s next to (an ag-residential property) that is has a different weight than if it’s not. It’s sort of a working decision.”
At some point over the last 40 years, those seeking to preserve as much ag land as possible to stop the infringement of development, the property in question was identified as a solid gravel resource. Typically, land that is pocked by having gravel mined out of it is not a desirable site for dividing and developing.
The Marysville Township Board did not support the approval of the request, but Commissioner Charlie Borrell said that it was a decision based on the township board’s interpretation of the current Land Use Plan, which the request did not support. Potter said that the lack of town board support was because it doesn’t adhere to the current Land Use Plan and is creating a situation that could come back to bite the county someday.
“When we start deviating from the Land Use Plan, where does it stop and who might come in as players in the future that we really don’t want?” Potter said. “We’re going to set precedents by going outside the Land Use Plan, so we don’t have a Land Use Plan per se. I think that’s what got the county in a pickle before – they didn’t have a Land Use Plan they stuck with. If you don’t stick with it, you’re going to have a player somewhere down the road that you’re not going to want to deal with, but they say, ‘You did it here. You did it there. You did it there. You’ve got to do it for us.’ The concern is that we’re starting down that path.”
Borrell said he couldn’t argue with Potter’s assertion. He agreed that the Land Use Plan needs to be revisited, but the planning commission looks at each case individually and looks at the best use for a piece of land and applies the law to each.
Board Chair Darek Vetsch said that a hard and fast checklist of how different portions of the county are zoned should be investigated and create a policy to deal with how similar future requests are handled until the time comes that a revised Land Use Plan, which was last updated in 2011, can be created.
Borrell countered that, if that happens, there is no reason for a planning commission, which takes its job of evaluating each request very seriously.
“If you did that and it really was that concrete, then you don’t need a (planning commission),” Borrell said. “That’s what the board is there for and there are tough calls sometimes. Sometimes (the planning commission votes) are 5-2 or 4-3.”
Commissioner Christine Husom stated that the votes that are made are based on the merits of each request and that, while the zoning designation of a property was made for a reason, over time, the true value of a given property can change.
“I think the difference that comes in is what is the best use for this property?” Husom said. “I think that can be an argument and that could be perhaps the criteria (for designation changes).”
While Borrell reinforced his belief that each request is given long and thoughtful consideration with debate among the commission members, Vetsch said it’s time to take a new look at the Land Use Plan and determine what the factors are now, not from 1978 or 1988 when it became known as the Land Use Plan or 2011 when it was last updated.
“It’s obviously an issue that our Land Use Plan is becoming dated,” Vetsch said. “For that reason, in the short-term, I think we need to create a policy as to what the criteria are that would warrant a rezoning for these same type situations. I think it we did that, we have something to hang our hat on to for all these situations going forward.”
More than 40 years ago, the Wright County Board attempted to tackle the issue of urban expansion into what had been a predominantly rural county by drawing lines and creating its “Comprehensive Plan” for how land was going to be viewed. Is it industrial? Is it residential? Is it agricultural? Whether those designations changed over time wasn’t a consideration back then. The mantra was protecting ag land that was getting swallowed.
The question facing Wright County in 2019 is whether to fine-tune what the county has or add more layers of policies of the Land Use Plan. Riley said there are always going to be lines where adjoining properties where one is deemed agricultural land and the neighbor is fine for residential development. Until the plan is updated, Borrell said the planning commission does the job as best it can to take each request at face value and adding another layer of regulations won’t make the situation better.
“These (decisions) aren’t cut and dried and, if they were, we wouldn’t need a board,” Borrell said. “It’s not that these things get rubber-stamped at the planning commission. You see the debate that goes on and you can all read the minutes and see how seriously we take it. What we have right now works.”
The board approved the rezoning request by a 3-2 vote, with Potter and Vetsch voting against it.
John Holler covers the Wright County Board of Commissioners.