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Angry, and fighting back

Johnson County’s agricultural community voices opposition to proposed Unified Development Ordinance
The agricultural community of Johnson County filled a meeting room in the Health and Human Services building in Iowa City on Monday, Sept. 9, for a Planning and Zoning Commission public hearing on proposed changes to the County’s Unified Development Ordinance (UDO). Farmers are upset about several aspects of the changes including a new permit process related to animal agriculture and required proof of farming to receive the Agricultural Exemption. (photo by Chris Umscheid)

IOWA CITY– Former Johnson County Supervisor Pat Harney didn’t mince his words when he described the sections of a proposed Unified Development Ordinances relating to agriculture.
“This is anything but resembling a democracy,” Harney said, “it’s beginning to resemble a dictatorship.” Harney was one of 20 people who spoke at a public hearing of the Johnson County Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z) Monday, Sept. 9, at the Johnson County Administration Building in Iowa City. The meeting was originally scheduled for the Board of Supervisors’ chamber, but an overflow crowd necessitated moving the public hearing to the Health and Human Services building across the street. A packed room awaited P&Z members, who remained behind to attend to regular rezoning and subdivision approvals before taking up an ordinance amending the Johnson County Code of Ordinances, by repealing and replacing the Unified Development Ordinance (Chapter 8: Property and Land Use in the Johnson County Code of Ordinances) in its entirety and opening the floor to a public hearing.
After roughly an hour of waiting, P&Z Chairwoman Kathy Swenka opened the public hearing.
According to Josh Busard, director of Planning, Development and Sustainability (PDS), his staff has spent more than 1,000 man hours working on the proposed ordinance. “PDS staff started from current ordinance, then reorganized content, removed some regulations, modified or added others. Then we clarified and codified long-standing administrative interpretations. The ordinance was reviewed section by section since July 2018 (14 months),” Busard said.
During that time 17 P&Z Commission public meetings were held along with 19 board of supervisor public meetings. And, he noted, P&Z reviewed the content before the supervisors.
“Content drafted based on PZC and BOS direction and every piece of content has been subject to review in at least three different public meetings over the past 14 months,” he added. “One goal of this new UDO is to extend the agricultural exemption to farmers based on their actual use, not just the size of their property.”
According to state code, he said, land, farm houses and other farm buildings and uses that are primarily adapted for agricultural purposes are exempt from all zoning code, building code and subdivision regulations while used for agricultural purposes.
“Under the current UDO, the exemption only applies to parcels of ground that consist of 40 or more acres and are agriculturally zoned. This new ordinance proposes to establish an application process that will allow for legitimate, smaller agricultural operations– often times those local producers who are engaged in CSA agriculture and provide produce and meat to the local food industry– to qualify for the benefits of the exemption as well.”
Busard said (in a Thursday, Sept. 12, email) there is some “misinformation” present.
“For example, the proposed ordinance does not require that a farmer submit an application to build an agricultural outbuilding (barn, silo, shed) if you have 40 acres of more. Also, the exemption determination (filling out an application) is only needed when you build a new building. You do not need to apply or be granted approval to utilize your existing buildings agriculturally on any sized parcel or property.”
Busard also said there is no farm re-certification, and noted the proposed application process for agricultural exemption is currently in-use by several Iowa counties including Polk, Linn, Story and Scott. “Johnson County plans to model our application off other counties and does not intend for the application process to be burdensome.”
However, many agricultural producers find the regulations and application process not only burdensome, but deeply troubling.
“I drove in from Iowa, but Jesus, I think I found myself in a third-world country,” Robert Sentman, a farmer from rural Tiffin. “I’m no stranger to regulations. I spent 35 years of my life interpreting, reading and developing regulations. But I found after I reviewed what you have proposed here, that I come away with more questions than answers, especially pertaining to the livestock-agricultural portion of what we’re doing here. I realize there’s a movement in the country to eliminate livestock, and I hope this is not the driving force for your purpose in doing this.”
Sentman gave an overview of the agricultural economy in Johnson County, from the United States Department of Agriculture’s 2017 Census of Agriculture. It cited 4,044 agricultural jobs, $171 million in wages, $868.8 million in total agricultural sales, and a total value of $76.3 million for livestock sold in the county.
Sentman also lamented the lack of young people entering farming, and the difficulties they face if they choose to do so.
“Our problem is, that we’ve got an aging group of agricultural producers in this county, as we do across the state, and across the nation. We’ve got high-priced land and equipment. It makes it very hard for young producers to try and get started. One way they can do this without laying out a huge amount of money for land is to vertical integrate an operation in livestock. They can get started and manage what they have, and grow. It’s one way we’ve got right now to get youth into agriculture. And we have to do this. We do not need more obstacles in their path to do this.”
The proposal, while discouraging agriculture, and likely reducing the number of working farms, would also eventually decrease tax revenue, and have grave consequences for ag-related businesses in the county, he said.
“Many of us here have served our country in uniform, and we’ve served throughout the world. One of the things we’ve done is to help bring freedom and civil rights to other people in other countries. I never did think, and I don’t think anybody else here did too, that we would ever have to stand up here, at home, and try to promote the same thing for ourselves. This proposed ordinance restricts our civil rights, and our freedoms to do what we know how to do better than any other people in the world. Now we’re being told how to do our job, by people who are totally unqualified to do so. If this proposal passes, I can’t believe we’re letting this happen. Iowa Code prohibits what you are trying to do here in Johnson County, and that should be enough. Do not pass this ordinance now or at any time in the future.”
Assistant Johnson County Attorney Ryan Maas has asserted the county can regulate agricultural to ensure only the proper recipients receive the agricultural exemption, and noted animal agriculture, particularly large-scale operations, are subject to county zoning ordinances “if the county so chooses. So, the idea that agricultural operations are absolutely, completely, forever and ever not subject to county regulations is a fallacy. It is fair for county governments that are charged with applying land use regulations to ask for, weigh, and then make a determination as to whether a particular applicant, seeking to not have the rules apply to them, qualify for exemption.”
One by one, farmers and agricultural supporters took to the podium. Steve Swenka, a fourth-generation farmer and livestock producer from rural Tiffin empathized with the P&Z Commissioners saying, “Over the last year, it’s become dreadfully obvious that you guys (P&Z) are kind of a pawn in the game somewhere between the county attorney and the (PDS) staff, and the supervisors. And for those reasons alone, I would ask you take no action on this ordinance tonight.”
Jason Beuter, a West Branch High School student and FFA member from Morse, asked the commission to take no action as well. Beuter laid out his concerns as a young person wanting to make a career of agriculture. “As a young farmer, some of these regulations are crippling. If I go to get a loan, I have no records, whatsoever (a viability test including tax records is part of determining if a landowner is truly engaged in farming in order to earn the agricultural exemption). So how can I prove my intent of what I’m going to do, or that I have economic viability when I haven’t even turned a profit yet? I’ve only had costs.”
Ray and Nancy Slach from rural West Branch spoke out against the UDO with Ray, a third-generation farmer, saying their daughter and son-in-law are the fourth generation farming on their land, and he hopes his grandchildren will be the fifth.
“Livestock farming is a path for the next generation,” he said. “I strongly suggest you take no action on this Johnson County Unified Development Ordinance.” In addition, he said the regulations would not only burden agriculture, but also “strangle the growth of the next generation of farmers.”
Slach took exception to specific parts of the plan including having to prove they are active farmers to receive the exemption, limitations on the number of animals per parcel of land, and retired farmers living on their land (but not actively farming) will lose their exemption. “The process of this plan has been dictated by the Johnson County Board of Supervisors, and again bypassed by the Planning and Zoning Commission. You and I know that’s not how it’s supposed to work.” He spoke of the volunteers for the Comprehensive Plan committee, and how they also felt bypassed by the supervisors. “The board of supervisors changed what they wrote after they gave up their time to provide input.” The supervisors, he said, “have followed their own agenda, in their own way, to make this ordinance as it exists today. It sounds like a dictatorship.”
Slach added the title is wrong as well. “There is nothing ‘unified,’ in this ordinance for agriculture. It is divided and destructive.”
The Slachs had previously sought a permit for a new facility for their daughter and son-in-law, which was later withdrawn after a hearing that included two-and-a-half hours of activists addressing the supervisors, said Nancy Slach. She pointed out the activists continued to speak after the proposal had been withdrawn. “They trashed us in the press, people at church were asking me what was going on, and I think public hearings in Johnson County, with Ag, are really public lynchings. And it’s something you’ve gotta really have really thick skin to be able to stand up and be there.”
Activists also gathered on the road outside their farm, intimidating the family and inconveniencing their neighbors. “I don’t think we should be exposed to that kind of problems. Please don’t attempt to regulate farming in Johnson County. We’re regulated heavily enough. Please try to respect all farmers in Johnson County from the smallest to the largest. We’re a diverse group, and we’re good stewards of the environment,” she said with tears in her eyes. “Our future is in your hands.”
State Representative Mary Mascher (D) issued a warning. “I am asking you to listen to what the people here have to say. Because if you don’t, we will end up dealing with it in the Legislature. And I always think the decisions closest to home are best, and we need to figure out what is best for the people here, and what we can agree to. I would rather see us come to a resolution here, that people can agree to, and I would ask that you listen to what the people have had to say, because I think it is extremely important that they be heard, and we incorporate changes into the plan based on what you’ve heard.”
Former Supervisor Pat Harney pointed out how with the unprecedented growth in Johnson County, more and more conflicts are occurring between urban and rural. “We have farmers in this county who are not being represented like I feel they should be. And things are moving so fast that we’re not getting a fair shake for our rural area farmers.” Any change in a rule or regulation results in somebody paying for it, Harney said. “It’s either gonna be the farmers, or it’s gonna be the county. When you make those changes, you’re gonna have to implement somebody who’s gonna monitor that, who’s gonna research that, who’s gonna do all the checking and background information. It doesn’t come cheap. It just seems like we’re moving to a point where we’re taking away from what the residents of rural Johnson County are able to do, are supposed to do, and love doing.”
The commission decided to keep the public hearing open, to be continued until its Tuesday, Nov. 12, regular meeting with a work session (open to the public) immediately following a Monday, Oct. 14, regular meeting. “If the commission takes action on November 12th, PDS staff will ask the board of supervisors to set a public hearing in December or early January. Most likely, PDS staff will recommend January,” Busard said in an email.
“The purpose of the public hearing was to get feedback from county residents regarding the proposed UDO,” Busard wrote. “Staff heard several concerns and will be prepared to offer language for the P&Z Commission to consider at their next work session to possibly address those concerns as well as any other concerns that might come up.”

“I drove in from Iowa, but Jesus, I think I found myself in a third-world country.” – Robert Sentman, retired Major General, and farmer.

“This is anything but resembling a democracy. It’s beginning to resemble a dictatorship.” – Pat Harney, former Johnson County Supervisor

“The idea that agricultural operations are absolutely, completely, forever and ever not subject to County regulations is a fallacy.” – Assistant County Attorney Ryan Maas.

“There is nothing ‘unified,’ in this ordinance for agriculture. It is divided and destructive.” – Ray Slach, third generation farmer

“I am asking you to listen to what the people here have to say. Because if you don’t, we will end up dealing with it in the Legislature.” – State Rep. Mary Mascher, Democrat, District 86