• warning: Parameter 2 to ed_classified_link_alter() expected to be a reference, value given in /home/soloneconomist/www/www/includes/common.inc on line 2968.
  • warning: Parameter 2 to ed_classified_link_alter() expected to be a reference, value given in /home/soloneconomist/www/www/includes/common.inc on line 2968.

On the record

P&Z Commission makes its concerns with the UDO known
“Where are the people in favor of this?” asks Planning and Zoning Commission member Mike Parker during a Monday, Oct. 14, work session to discuss the proposed Unified Development Ordinance, which has been put together by the County Planning, Development and Sustainability staff. A public hearing, started in September, will continue next month before any recommended changes make their way to the county board of supervisors.

IOWA CITY– A number of items related to agriculture, in general, and animal agriculture, in particular, in the proposed Unified Development Ordinance (UDO) for Johnson County has brought forth a firestorm of criticism from the agricultural community.
During a Sept. 9 public hearing, conducted by the Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z), 20 spoke in objection to parts of Chapter 8 of the document, which has been in development since July 2018 as a follow up to the county’s comprehensive plan.
Johnson County’s Planning, Development and Sustainability (PDS) staff invested well over 1,000-man hours on the proposed UDO, starting with existing ordinances, reorganizing them, removing some and modifying others to line up with the comprehensive plan.
“Then we clarified and codified long-standing administrative interpretations,” PDS Director Josh Busard said at the time.
Between July 2018 and September 2019 some 17 P&Z Commission public meetings had been held, as well as 19 board of supervisor (BoS) public meetings. P&Z has reviewed content and made recommendations for the supervisors to consider throughout the process. Ultimately, the supervisors will determine the final content of the UDO, accepting, adapting, or rejecting P&Z’s recommendations.
At the Sept. 9 meeting, the Commission, chaired by Kathy Swenka, opted to continue the public hearing on Tuesday, Nov. 12, and deferred taking any action on the UDO until after the conclusion of the hearing. In the interim, a work session was held on Monday, Oct. 14, to discuss concerns with the UDO with PDS staff including Busard, Assistant Director Nate Mueller and Assistant Planner Luke McClanahan.
Mueller presented three memos from PDS to the P&Z Commission containing potential language changes, based on comments from the Sept. 9 meeting, as well as feedback received at two listening posts afterward. It was noted in the memo and reiterated during the work session discussion, P&Z cannot officially change any ordinance language, but can make recommendations for specific changes to the supervisors as part of their overall recommendation on the ordinance.
A major point of contention for the farmers was a proposal to require a fact-finding public hearing for animal feeding operations (AFOs) with more than 25 animal units per acre of land. Many argued the requirement, including the likelihood of being harassed by opponents of AFOs, were overly burdensome and in conflict with the State Code of Iowa. While the PDS staff, with support from the county attorney’s office, maintains the position the fact-finding requirement would probably stand up to a court challenge, PDS suggested striking AFOs from the determination of eligibility for the Agricultural Exemption, and also suggested striking the public hearing.
PDS staff recommended changes in language for properties of less than 40 acres and more than 10, which are “presumed to not be primarily adapted for agricultural purposes.” The original language includes four tests for applicants for Ag Exemption to demonstrate: A “History/Experience Test,” an “Intent/plans Test,” a “Primarily Adapted Test” and a “Viability Test.” It was argued these tests, especially the viability test (which looks at the applicant’s ability to cover the costs and be financially viable) are a barrier to people, especially younger people, trying to enter the agricultural industry. PDS offered striking the viability test in this section, referred to as “Tier 2.” For properties of less than 10 acres (“Tier 3”), PDS suggested striking the tests and fact-finding process entirely.
Agricultural Exemption traditionally included a farmhouse on agricultural land. However, if the farmer retires and is no longer engaged in agriculture on the property, it then becomes a “legal nonconforming use.” The residential and agricultural use of the property can continue, but if the retired farmer wanted to rebuild or expand the home, it would need to conform to zoning and permitting requirements.
To address concerns about retired farmers being able to stay in their homes (and keeping the exemption), PDS offered including language specifying an occupant who is retired from being actively engaged in agricultural activities on the land on which the dwelling is located. If ultimately approved by the supervisors, this would ensure a retired farmer could stop farming their land, stay in their own home, and continue to be within the ag exemption. PDS staff urged the commission to establish a minimum amount of time someone must be engaged in agricultural uses on the property before being considered a “retired farmer” in order to prevent non-farmers from gaming the system, and claiming the exemption when it does not apply according to the state code.
Concerns have also been raised about the new regulations being onerous for producers wishing to expand an existing building. PDS staff stated the intention was for new dwellings or new AFOs, but the public perception was it would require an application for any building or use on a Tier 1 (40 acres or more) property. Suggested language clarifies, “Application shall not be required for repair of any existing structure. Application shall not be required to replace existing accessory structures, provided the new structure will be primarily adapted for agricultural uses.”
PDS staff intends to have a single list of potential changes available for the commission to review and consider when it continues the public hearing on Nov. 12. However, it should be noted, the changes are only options for the commission to consider, and the commission will not take any formal action on the UDO until after the conclusion of the public hearing.
P&Z has the options of recommending adoption of the UDO as written, recommending adoption with the suggested changes (or even adding additional recommendations for changes), or rejecting it outright (taking no action). Ultimately, it will be up to the board of supervisors what the final draft will look like, and it will be the board which approves the UDO for adoption and implementation by PDS staff.
Once the supervisors have the draft UDO, they will hold public hearings, possibly in December, before voting on it. Concerns were raised earlier this fall with a late harvest season keeping farmers in the fields, and not being able to attend public hearings and listening posts.
The draft UDO is available online at www.johnson-county.com by clicking on Departments for the pull-down menu, then clicking on “Planning, Dev. & Sustainability.” The public is encouraged to continue to submit comments by phone at 319-356-6083, by email at jbusard@co.johnson.ia.us, or by mail at Johnson County Administration Building, Planning, Development and Sustainability, 913 S. Dubuque St., Ste. 204, Iowa City, IA 52240. P&Z Commission members received feedback and their contact information is available on the County Website under Boards/Commissions by scrolling down to Planning and Zoning Commission, and clicking on Current members. Agendas and meeting minutes are also posted along with PDS Clerk Julia Dodd’s email address, jdodds@co.johnson.ia.us, for relay to all five commissioners.