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Washington County First in State to Repeal County Zoning!

When Washington County Supervisors repealed county zoning, many residents saw proof that democracy works, although not as quickly as many would like. The story begins in 2007, when Supervisors began an update of the Comprehensive Plan, a process that drew little publicity or participation, but resulted in a highly controversial document which recommended the county consider adopting zoning. Although public opinion was strongly opposed to the plan for this reason, the Supervisors accepted it and shortly thereafter appointed a commission to write a zoning ordinance.


The Zoning Commission worked for months with a paid consultant to craft an ordinance suitable for a rural county whose population was little changed from 100 years ago. At every hearing, the majority of the public opposed the plan, but towards the end of 2009 the Commission voted to send the proposed ordinance to the Supervisors. At this point, a handful of people who had opposed the ordinance at the last hearing met at a local coffeehouse and formed a group they christened "Free County" because, according to founder James Graham, "we wanted to promote freedom, not just oppose zoning".


The nascent group quickly attempted to inform the public of some of the lurking dangers within the proposed ordinance through radio and print advertising, and in a massive door-to-door campaign gathered almost 1500 signatures of citizens opposed to zoning. One member noted that "it was amazing, because everywhere I went people were telling me how much they disliked this thing, we didn't need it before and didn't need it now". Supervisors dismissed the signatures as "not a majority" and eventually adopted the ordinance, although the public hearing prior to its adoption once again showed that a solid majority of the public was in opposition.


Once the ordinance was in place, enforcement of trivial details resulted in ridiculous rulings, such as rural residents being forced to change the design of their machine sheds because they were a few inches too tall. Aided immeasurably by such rulings, Free County worked to keep the issue in the public eye.


As 2011 neared an end, the three supervisors who had voted in favor of zoning were all up for re-election, although the poor health of one left his future in doubt. Anti-zoning candidates emerged in each district, often in both parties. The day after the primary it became very clear that the majority of the voters truly did not want zoning, as all pro-zoning candidates were defeated. The general election was almost anti-climactic as most of the candidates opposed zoning. One incumbent chose to run as an independent, using as part of his platform that he favored zoning, apparently oblivious of the fact that the voters were definitely not in support of zoning. Three new supervisors were elected, all on the platform of ending zoning.


Once the new supervisors were in office, they began the process of re-evaluating the ordinance. Carefully following the County Attorney's instructions, they directed the Planning & Zoning Commission to make a report on what should be done. P&Z dutifully reported that the ordinance should be kept, and the supervisors held yet another hearing in which the majority of the public opposed the ordinance. Finally, a draft ordinance to repeal the zoning ordinance was hammered out and adopted, and with barely a whimper zoning became a 3 year bad memory for Washington County. Free County continues to work to increase public awareness of freedom issues.


Supervisors still busy "solving" private sewage problems


The supervisors have embarked on a plan to force the citizens of Richmond and several other small towns to connect to, and pay for, a central sewage system. Despite several lawsuits revolving around the project, they are intent on its completion.




Supervisors Set Final Reading of Zoning Ordinance

The Supervisors have set the third and final reading of the county zoning ordinance for their regular meeting at 9:30 AM, Tuesday March 2.  The final vote is expected to follow, although the supervisors may choose to delay as long as they wish.  You may call 653-7711 to speak to the supervisors or leave a message.  They should be in the office most of this week working on the budget, and you may leave a message after hours.



Supervisors Set Final Public Zoning Hearing

At 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 10, Washington County residents will have the opportunity to state their opinions about the proposed zoning ordinance to the County Board of Supervisors. The public hearing will be held in the lower level of the Washington County Extension Building on the fairgrounds.

    The supervisors set the hearing date during their weekly meeting this morning. Board Chairman Jim Miksch said that County Attorney Barbara Edmondson had written some rules to be used at the hearing.

    Edmondson, who was in attendance, said that the rules will be approved before the public hearing begins on Feb. 10. However, she said the biggest concern county officials have is to give everyone who wants to speak the opportunity to do so. She said that there will likely be a sign-in sheet, as is usual for many governmental meetings. Persons who wish to speak may be asked to make a mark of some kind on the sign-up sheet. The allotted time per speaker will then be determined.

    Edmondson said that county officials want to encourage residents to write down their opinions in case those opinions cannot be said in the time allotted.  When Mary Leedy of Kalona asked if residents would have to submit their questions ahead of time, Edmondson said no.

    Consultant Gary Lozano will be on hand to answer specific questions about the ordinance. The supervisors will wait until the end of the meeting to respond to questions.

    Leedy also asked when the supervisors will vote on the ordinance.      Miksch said that two additional readings would be held after the public hearing. The vote could come as soon as the supervisors’ Feb. 23 meeting. However, the supervisors haven’t scheduled the second and third readings yet. He also said the supervisors do not intend to waive any readings.



December 15th meeting of Board of Supervisors

 Chairman Miksch began the discussion of modifications to the zoning ordinance by noting that "this is a democratic process-people have legitimate concerns" and the board wants to address these with the amendments.


The biggest change concerned the minimum lot size in the AG and UR districts.  The supervisors voted to reduce this from 35 acres to 10 acres.  Miksch observed that the change "meets some of the objections raised" by opponents of zoning, while Mangold stated that he still didn't like the idea but the lower minimum was at least "more digestible".


Significant discussion centered around several proposals to limit the time in which lots currently existing that would be too small for a house under the zoning ordinance would remain buildable.  The draft did not specify any limitation, but there was some thought that this could create a lot of extra work in the future to determine if a lot existed prior to the ordinance.  However, the Board eventually voted to leave the language alone and allow the lots to remain available for construction indefinitely.  The original language did specify the new constuction must comply in all other ways, the exemption is only to the minimum lot size.


Several other changes were approved which clarified the nature of the Urban Reserve area and the process of development approval in that area, as well as allowing kennels in the Ag Residential area by special exemption.




December 8th meeting of Board of Supervisors

 Jim Miksch started the meeting by suggesting the supervisors adopt a timeline for the zoning ordinance. His suggestion was to set the 22nd as the date the document would be finalized, with the public hearing happening in the first part of January. He told the board “I think we need to get to a decision.”


Wes Rich then returned to the matter of the Urban Reserve area. There was discussion about who actually controls this area, with County Engineer Patterson stating that the area is “actually controlled by the county”, but that control would be exercised in tandem with city authorities so that the end result is “anything is allowable as long as it is congruent with the city plan.” This could include smaller lot sizes or other types of usage. It was also noted that this change would modify the exemption for small lots already existing, since currently the ordinance provides a blanket exemption for such lots. With the new understanding, such lots would be buildable only if approved by city planners. Patterson also clarified that the exemption for lots smaller than the minimum lot size are exempt ONLY from the lot size and that the usage must still be within the allowable uses.

Supervisor Rich then brought up the matter of kennels, stating that he felt they should be considered as an agricultural use rather than a separate usage type. Patterson noted that the “definition of agricultural usage is deliberately vague because the burden of proof is on the user”. Chairman Miksch noted that allowing usage only by special exemption is a way to allow the supervisors to deny permission on a case-by-case basis. Rich felt that kennels should be allowed in the Ag Residential area, but Patterson disagreed, noting that “AR is where we are promoting housing to go”. Eventually, supervisors did agree to allow kennels in the AR district by special exemption.

Supervisor Rosien expressed some concern that the ordinance was too detailed, wondering who was going to enforce all of this regulation. Patterson responded that enforcement would primarily be on new development, which must be approved. Miksch noted that people everywhere he goes want to talk about zoning. He stated that zoning is an effort “to keep bad things from happening”. He said if the board approves zoning and in ten years nothing bad has happened, no one will call them and thank them for passing it, but if they don’t pass it and bad things happen people will be upset the supervisors didn’t do anything. Rosien then wondered if there are any other ways to prevent problems other than zoning.

Free County spokesman James Graham  questioned the supervisors about how they reconciled the limitations of zoning (limiting kennels and other business) with the number one weakness identified by the Comprehensive Plan, which was lack of industry and jobs. Supervisor Mangold stated that industry will only go places where there is zoning, so zoning will prepare the way for industry. Patterson then stated that they did not want to “prevent anything, only to do it in a way that would be beneficial.” Miksch also said the goal is “not to stifle anything, but to make it work”. Jim Rosien felt that zoning would certainly stifle the desires of some people to live in the country, and that they should be free to do so without expecting the county to increase services for them.

The proposed zoning ordinance will be on the Supervisors agenda next week (which means public comments will be received) and a work session will follow the regular session as the Supervisors attempt to hammer out a final draft prior to Dec. 22.




December 1st meeting of Board of Supervisors

The supervisors held their fourth work session to discuss county zoning Tuesday morning following their regular weekly meeting. 

After lengthy and detailed discussion of numerous aspects of the proposed zoning ordinance, Board Chairman Jim Miksch raised the notion of injecting a more businesslike direction in to the Board's decision-making process.  Restating his comittment to keeping the zoning proceedings open and helping taxpayers understand the contents and implications of the draft ordinance, Miksch stuck to his position when County Auditor Bill Fredericks suggested that the process contains too many loose ends to commit to a timeline at this point.  "Well, we can set a timeline, and if that doesn't work then we'll have to revise it," Miksch replied.

 After significant discussion with County Engineer Dave Patterson, supervisors agreed that it’s time to begin making specific edits to the Draft Zoning Ordinance. Further, they agreed that all such edits should be discussed and decided upon in upcoming work sessions, to streamline updating of the October 5 draft edition prior to further public dissemination. “All changes need to be in place before any public hearings take place,” noted Auditor Frederick. He suggested that Miksch might want to poll Board members on individual items during work sessions to get a better grasp of board sentiment.  Miksch noted that the County Attorney would review the proposed ordinance, “but would not be deeply involved.” Miksch said the County Attorney, in his opinion, would be most interested in reviewing  the proposed fines and penalties for non-compliance.

The proposed “35/10” (reducing size of approved building lots in Ag Zones from the current 35 acres to 10 acres) would apply to AG and UR (Urban Reserve) zones.  There was considerable discussion about the Urban Reserve area, and general agreement that the wording needs to be clarified to indicate that the municipalities will have the final word in development within this area.  It was noted that many areas of the proposed zoning ordinance are already being dealt with by the office of Subdivision Planning.

In a follow-up to discussion about minimum acreage for building homes on Agriculture District land, as well as the “grace” period permitted for building on such land after possible passage of a County Zoning Ordinance, the County Engineer’s Office presented proposed language modifying the Draft Zoning Ordinance concerning the allowance of building on existing lots which do not meet minimum lot size requirements.   One alternative would be to grant the exemption in perpetuity, while the other would allow construction within 10 years from the date of the adoption of the ordinance.  Houses constructed as farm houses (and therefore exempt from minimum lot size requirements) would need to apply for a special permit to create a separate lot for the house if the lot was smaller than the minimum lot size of 10 acres AND if it was constructed after the adoption of the ordinance.


Supervisor Adam Mangold noted that the public seems to believe that all Board members have made up their minds to approve the proposed Zoning ordinance. This was not true in his case, he stated.


Click on the following link to read the Washington Journal report on this meeting:



November 24 meeting of Board of Supervisors

(by Linda Wenger, courtesy Washington Evening Journal)

After debating the 35 acre minimum lot size provision in the proposed agriculture district for two weeks,  the Washington County Board of Supervisors decided to drop that minimum lot size down to 10 acres in the proposed zoning ordinance.

The supervisors held their third work session to discuss county zoning Tuesday morning following their regular weekly meeting.  They also received a report on the projected annual budget should they adopt the ordinance.

Supervisor and board chairman Jim Miksch got the ball rolling on the minimum lot size provision.  He said that the 35-acre limit has raised a lot of concern wth members of the public.  That concern does not go away after people find out the 35-acre lot size would only be imposed on prime agricultural ground and not the whole county.

Supervisor Wes Rich looked to the purpose for the provision and said the purpose  is to encourage development to occur close to populated areas.  He suggested dropping the lot size to 20 acres.

However, Miksch pressed the point of  a 10-acre limit.  He thinks that many prospective homebuilders would not want to build a house in the agricultural district and suggested the 10-acre limit would be an adequate deterrent to homebuilders.  He also said the county could find value in some sort of land use planning.

Supervisor Jim Rosien said a 10- or 20-acre minimum lot size might help young farmers who might want to sell off a small parcel of farmland to raise capital or reduce debt.  He said that the 35-acre limit would take away that opportunity.

The change to a 10-acre limit is not binding at this time.  Miksch and Auditor Bill Fredricks both said that making the change would need to happen when the board is ready to hold a public hearing on the proposed zoning ordinance.

Supervisor Adam Mangold said that he attended a session on zoning at Iowa State Association of Counties (ISAC) meeting last week.  He said that if the county doesn't do something about zoning, the state will.  He said that after the floods of 2008, groups such as Rebuild Iowa are pushing "smart growth."

Miksch said that the thought crossed his mind earlier yesterday morning that some sort of a plan for development might be needed "when you talk about a lot of new growth in the county."

Mangold, who last week said the proposed ordinance is an assault on free market capitalism, said the 10-acre figure is "a bit more palatable" than the 35-acre provision.

County taxpayers would be asked to pay an additional $21,500 next year to implement the zoning ordinance.  After start-up costs are paid, zoning would add about $15,500 to the budget.

"This year's budget for the subdivision and planning department is $46,500," said county engineer Dave Patterson.  "If we implemented the zoning ordinance, our estimate for next year's budget would be $68,000.  That's a difference of $21,500.  That includes about $6,000 in start-up costs."

He said that it's a simple budget to work through since 80 percent of the budget would be used to pay the salary of a zoning administrator.  That cost, he suggested, would be about $40,000 a year at a rate of $19 per hour.  He said the zoning administrator would oversee the subdivision ordinance, zoning and planning.

Patterson estimated that 100 zoning certificates might be issued in a year's time.  If a $25 fee were attached, the revenue would be $2,500.

Right now, Patterson said that one-fourt of assistant Jake Thorius's salary is from the $46,500 budget, with a smaller percentage going toward his own salary.

At the end of the discussion, Rosien said the supervisors need to find a way to satisfy the opponenents of zoning.  However, he's also not sure how they could do that.

Fredrick said that the supervisors need a plan first, a "reasonable document."  He also said that zoning could be debated for years and years without coming to a solution.

Miksch agreed, saying that some people will not be satisfied.

The supervisors are planning a work session to discuss zoning after their 9:30 a.m. weekly meeting Tuesday, Dec. 1.  At that time, they will discuss another portion of the proposed ordinance.  The Zoning Commission recommended allowing all "buildable" lots in the county to remain buildable after the ordinance is adopted.  The supervisors will consider establishing a sunset clause limiting the number of years "buildable" lots would remain "buildable".



November 10 meeting of Board of Supervisors

There was much discussion of the 35 acre minimum lot size in the AG and UR districts.  Consultant Gary Lozano recommended it not be modified since a smaller lot size would less effectively protect ag ground from development.  He said this size has been used successfully in other areas to discourage non-farm development in agricultural areas.


Home based businesses also generated significant discussion.  They are "unrestricted" unless they are in a residential subdivision or within 300' of another residence.   However, if the business grows larger than the limits of a "home based busines" (480 sq. ft., more than one non-family employee, etc.) then it must follow the zoning requirements based on the type of business and the zoning district.


Free County Monitors Supervisors' Zoning Work Session

Despite County Supervisors' recent deadpan reaction to 1,200 anti-zoning petition signatures from county taxpayers, growing countywide opposition is clearly on the governing group's radar scope, say Jim and Peg Stephens of Washington.

The Stephenses, along with fellow Free County members Les and JoeLyn Zickafoose, monitored Supervisors' comments during the group's work session following the routine business portion of its November 10 meeting.

"It's clear that the minimum 35-acre provision of the proposed ordinance as it relates to selling off land parcels in ag-zoned areas is causing taxpayers and supervisors much heartburn," notes Jim Stephens. "Before long, I would not be surprised to see a supervisor proposal to lower the 35-acre number to five acres or less as a concession to zoning opponents---including both farmers and non-farmers. "However, I still believe that acreage restriction angle is a red herring, or contrived issue, to reduce anxiety among anti-zoning residents."

"County Zoning still represents a potential tragic loss of citizens' rights to manage their own property in the manner they choose," adds Peg Stephens. "That's why it's critical that all concerned citizens keep focused on the key issue---Washington County does not need a new layer of expensive, suffocating bureaucracy which county zoning is almost sure to bring. The free market has served us well for more than 225 years. As the saying goes, if things are not 'broke,' why 'fix' them?"

She adds: "Does government exist for our convenience, or were we put here to make government officials' lives simpler and easier?"

As an example, Stephens cites Johnson County's zoning ordinance, which started out as a 100-page document similar to that now being considered by the Washington County Supervisors. "Johnson County's ordinance has been amended 10 times in the last five years, with three full-time zoning enforcers," she adds. "Of course, that's a higher density county, but the trend could be contagious over the county line. It's much easier to prevent a bureaucracy from happening than to attempt to remove it later. That almost never happens.

"We're told that to build a new home in Johnson County now costs the homeowner $2,000 or more in permits and inspection fees," she adds. "What a nightmare for those taxpayers. They would surely prefer that the county spend their tax money on better roads instead of a maddening new layer of bureaucracy."

The Washington County Supervisors will have another zoning work session Tuesday morning, November 17, beginning about 10:30, following the group's regular agenda. It might be a good idea to let your County Supervisor see you in the audience; however, taxpayer comments are discouraged during such sessions.

Even so, Stephens suggests that a good follow-up question for your supervisor (who's paid $30,000 a year to represent your interests in county government) might be to ask what the Supervisors' deliberation plan and timeline is for making a decision on county zoning. Next month? Next year?

"Let's keep the sun shining in on these proceedings," Stephens concludes.


Also, if you'd like to help Free County increase countywide awareness on county zoning facts and opinion, feel free to drop by Washington State Bank and make a non-deductible contribution to the Free County checking account. Ask for Customer Service Rep Roxanne Bush.