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Johnson County’s Unified Development Ordinance passes third vote, takes effect Jan. 15

IOWA CITY– Johnson County’s updated Unified Development Ordinance (UDO) passed its third and final consideration on a 3-2 vote Thursday, Dec. 19, during a formal meeting of the Johnson County Board of Supervisors. As with the previous two readings, Supervisors Rod Sullivan, Pat Heiden and Royce Ann Porter voted to approve while Janelle Rettig and Chairwoman Lisa Green-Douglass opposed.
The 299-page document codifying the county’s Comprehensive Land Use Plan, takes effect Jan. 15, 2020, and includes 16 recommended changes from the Planning and Zoning (P&Z) Commission. The County’s Planning, Development, and Sustainability (PDS) staff recommended approving the UDO with 15 of P&Z’s changes, leaving in a provision for public hearings prior to the approval of establishing or expanding an animal feeding operation (AFO, or concentrated animal feeding operation– CAFO). The UDO, described as a way to protect farmland from residential development, grants the agricultural exemption from the county’s building codes to farms of less than 40 acres, and includes AFOs on smaller farms, but limits the number of “animal units” (which varies by type of animal) allowable per acre.
Development of the UDO began in February of 2017 with several public hearings and public input sessions held through the board of supervisors and P&Z. The county’s agricultural community was particularly concerned about the UDO regarding the potential for the regulation of agriculture. Immediately prior to the vote, the supervisors made statements about the UDO, and their position on it.
Rettig, citing the numerous meetings, said the UDO was not “drafted in a vacuum,” taking issue with critics’ claims it was crafted without public input. She also called out the Iowa Farm Bureau for putting out “inaccurate information” about the scope and purpose of the UDO. Describing herself as anti-corporate agriculture, and not anti-farmer, Rettig explained her disdain for AFOs while stating the UDO, as passed, allows small farms to claim the ag exemption they were previously denied, and “won’t stop farming.” Rettig said while she personally wants a moratorium on AFOs in Johnson County, she realizes the board does not have the legal authority to do so. As written, she said, the UDO, “sends out the welcome mat for CAFOs.”
Sullivan echoed Rettig saying there have been a lot of people spreading misinformation and calling it shameful. He reiterated the UDO protects farmland by preventing “shams” and said while the ordinance isn’t perfect, it is a step in the right direction for the county. Sullivan also said after two years in development, he was not interested in delaying the process for additional changes.
Heiden said people have been upset with her for her yes votes, accusing her of being supportive of AFOs.
“I am going to follow the law,” she said. “We must move the needle (toward further regulation, and/or abolishment of AFOs) and make the change (at the legislative level). I do not support CAFOs. I will always support the law.”
Porter said she, too, was accused of wanting more AFOs in Johnson County, a charge she dismissed saying, “I’m for listening to the people,” in this case the farmers. Porter visited 10 farms to learn about modern agriculture during development of the UDO, which began before she joined the board of supervisors. Porter pointed out there is a mechanism in place to amend the UDO, at some point. Acknowledging the farmers’ concerns, she said, “There’s a lot of people out there this impacts.”
Green-Douglass restated the UDO is fully compliant with Iowa law, has parts in common with other Iowa counties, including statues which have stood the test of the Iowa Supreme Court. She lamented the removal of the requirement for a public hearing prior to approval of even a small-scale AFO, calling it a “small sacrifice” for potentially changing the environment and impacting surrounding neighbors.
Johnson County’s legislators were contacted in recent weeks seeking their thoughts on the UDO.
Representative Bobby Kaufmann (IA-73), whose district encompasses Cedar County and eastern Johnson County, said the initial proposal was both radical and anti-agriculture.
“The barriers that it put up for small and beginning farmers were a direct attack on their livelihood,” he wrote via email. “I want to thank the three Supervisors who voted to take the extreme proposals out. If they had moved forward, the State would have had no choice but to step in.”
While the adopted proposal is far better than the initial proposal, Kaufmann said he still harbors concerns over the UDO.
“It does not address many of the concerns that have been brought to both myself and the board regarding local foods/vegetable/small farmers. There are issues with how they are zoned that were unfortunately not addressed.”
The Representative added he sees attempts in the UDO to regulate the number of livestock (“animal units” per acre) on smaller farmers (under 40 acres) to be in direct conflict with Iowa law.
Jerry Anderson, the regional manager for the Iowa Farm Bureau, said an attempt was made to submit changes that morning to clarify some of the wording, but, “Three votes supporting those changes just were not there. Getting this done now seems more important than waiting two weeks to get it right. Words do matter and as the new ordinance is on Jan. 15, livestock operations could be regulated on parcels smaller than 40 acres, and those on larger parcels as well.”
Anderson frequently reminded the supervisors of the limits placed upon them by the Iowa Code, and noted, “State Code is very clear that livestock production is indeed agriculture and is exempt from county regulation.” How exactly the ordinance will be enforced, he said, is a question, “And only time will tell.”
State Senator Kevin Kinney of rural Oxford attended two planning and zoning meetings and shared some of the same concerns.
“I have a vested interest in the UDO because I own and operate my family’s century farm in Johnson County,” Kinney said via email.
The UDO will recognize smaller farm operations, he said. “This will help smaller farmers, and will help young farmers get their foot in the door running their own operations. Current land prices prohibit many from being able to purchase 40 acres.”
But state code prohibits the county from regulating livestock production, he continued.
“There are still concerns that the UDO is still trying to regulate the number of livestock on smaller farms under 40 acres,” he noted. “
I hope the Johnson County Supervisors will continue to listen to farmers and to make changes that are in the best interest of farmers while still complying with state law.”