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Supervisors return to UDO amendment proposals

Farm Bureau gets three out of seven changes approved
This screenshot from the Thursday, July 9, meeting of the Johnson County Board of Supervisors, shows Nate Mueller, assistant director for the county’s Planning, Development, and Sustainability Department (bottom left) and Chairman Rod Sullivan (top right) during the continuation of a public hearing regarding seven proposed amendments to the Unified Development Ordinance, brought forth by the Johnson County Farm Bureau. (screenshot)

IOWA CITY– The Johnson County Board of Supervisors approved three out of seven amendments to the Unified Development Ordinance (UDO) Thursday, July 9, during its regular meeting.
The amendments were proposed by the Johnson County Farm Bureau to address concerns of the agricultural community regarding wording and policies the UDO codified in support of the county’s Comprehensive Land Use Plan. The 300-page UDO was approved by the supervisors last December and took effect Jan. 15 after roughly a year-and-a-half of discussion and debate.
On March 9, the Johnson County Farm Bureau presented seven proposed amendments during a meeting of the County Planning and Zoning (P&Z) Commission.
“The amendments’ purpose is to implement the stated intent of the county board of supervisors, planning and zoning commission, and PDS staff in adopting the UDO such that the language of the ordinance mirrors the stated intentions,” said Johnson County Farm Bureau President Mark Ogden. Ogden stated the UDO “does not consistently refer to Iowa Code 335.2,” which forbids counties from regulating agriculture, and “uses language inconsistent with this code provision.”
After several hours of discussion and debate, 34 changes were approved by P&Z on a 4-0 vote while nine were denied on a 3-1 vote. The 34 changes were then sent to the supervisors for a public hearing and consideration of adoption at an April 9 formal meeting.
However, the COVID-19 crisis forced the supervisors to hold meetings remotely. Nate Mueller, the assistant director for the county’s Planning, Development and Sustainability Department (PDS) said on April 9 “(PDS) Staff feels it would be most prudent to do that and to push this down the road until we’re able to get everybody together again, and hope we have a good discussion on it.” The supervisors voted 5-0 to continue the public hearing, and defer consideration of the Farm Bureau’s application to July 9.
Despite still meeting remotely, the hearing was continued with supervisors Rod Sullivan (chair) and Pat Heiden in attendance with Mueller and Ogden, while Supervisors Janelle Rettig, Royceann Porter and Lisa Green-Douglass participated virtually. Mueller reviewed 38 changes, primarily proposed for clarification, consistency and/or compliance with the Iowa Code, which were broken down into seven amendments.
The first amendment aimed at cleaning up language for uniformity, and to include “farm barns” in the definition of an “agricultural outbuilding.” PDS agreed with the Farm Bureau’s changes and the amendment passed 3-2 with Sullivan, Heiden and Porter in favor, while Green-Douglass and Rettig were opposed.
The second amendment addressed regulations limiting the number of animals based on zoning. The Farm Bureau again cited Iowa Code sections 335.2 and 331.304A, which prohibit counties from regulating livestock operations. PDS was in “full opposition” with Mueller saying they saw a “great potential for abuse” by removing such limits. The Supervisors agreed with PDS shooting down the amendment, 5-0.
Point three proposed amending the definition of “agricultural use” to remove the requirement a farmer prove to the county they obtain a profit through agriculture in order to qualify for the agricultural exemption. Again, PDS was in opposition, with Mueller citing abuses including individuals attempting to use a garden as qualification for the exemption, as well as the potential for “unchecked housing growth everywhere.” Throughout the discussions, PDS and the Farm Bureau have agreed to wanting to limit, if not prevent, urban sprawl from occurring on agricultural land.
The amendment was opposed 5-0 with Rettig saying “If you’re not trying to obtain a profit, you’re not a farmer and should not be exempt.” She also pointed out commercial property is taxed in-part on income, and thus maybe a broader discussion, at a later date, was warranted.
The fourth point called for eliminating the authorization for a “fact finding” public hearing by the supervisors for an agricultural exemption application, which the Farm Bureau said is inconsistent with the P&Z’s recommendations, as well as “the representations by county supervisors, both pro and con, of the amendment adopted in December. The proposed amendment completes this intent.”
Mueller said it was PDS’s consensus public hearings are a useful tool and “a safety valve against decisions being made in a vacuum.” He also noted they are an opportunity for supporters to show up and be heard, as well as detractors, particularly when a proposed animal feeding operation is being discussed. He noted PDS staff would prefer to keep the ordinance as-is, but were fine with the board removing it.
The amendment passed with Sullivan, Heiden and Porter approving, while Rettig and Green-Douglass were opposed.
“I don’t think we miss out on too much,” Sullivan said, adding he was OK leaving the decision up to PDS Director Josh Busard. Rettig, in her dissent, said the public needs to have the opportunity to have its say.
The fifth point called for the removal of the agricultural exemption application for all outbuildings, barns and structures regardless of the size of the parcel. Throughout the comprehensive plan and UDO development, the issue of farms less than 40 acres in size has been discussed leading to a two-tiered application process for farms greater than, or less than, 40 acres.
PDS strongly opposed the change, Mueller said. The removal, he said, would essentially open the floodgates to houses being built on agriculturally zoned land, without any ties to agriculture. But he also noted the state legislature has tied their hands with recent legislation. “Exemption is not the default,” he said, “It has to be earned.” The supervisors agreed 5-0 to oppose the amendment.
The sixth point was in regard to farmsteads which are not on the same parcel as cropland or a livestock operation, and the impact of that on the agricultural exemption. The Farm Bureau argued modern farming includes the reality of a farm dwelling or farmstead not being located on the same land. PDS staff was strongly opposed, Mueller said, again turning to the potential for residential growth occurring under the guise of agriculture. Sullivan agreed, saying this would provide a loophole for people to build additional houses. However, Ogden pointed out the change was necessary to accommodate young farmers starting out, as well as older farmers in transition from active farming to retirement.
Rettig, in her opposition, saw the move as “an open invitation to urban sprawl.” Likewise, Green-Douglass said the potential for abuse was too great, and therefore had to oppose it as well. Discussion ensued about possibly finding wording, which would fit the Farm Bureau’s needs without allowing for sprawl, however Rettig expressed having “no desire in rewriting this on the fly without giving the public their say.”
“We want the same thing (no sprawl),” said Heiden, “It’s how to get there.” She, too, cast a no vote.
Porter, also voting no to make it 5-0 in opposition, said the board needed to revisit this topic at another time.
The seventh and final point called for a mandatory timeframe for approval or denial of an agricultural exemption application. The UDO called for “a timely manner,” while the exemption packet indicated a 7-14 business day window. The proposed amendment would call for a decision to be made by PDS no later than 30 days after application.
Mueller stated PDS’s opposition by citing the 14-day policy in-place and noting, “This would actually hurt applicants,” and adding, “Keeping the cap off allows us flexibility.”
Sullivan voted to approve, Heiden also voted yes noting she had no “strong opinion” about it with Porter also voting to approve. Green-Douglass opposed it as an “unnecessary change.” Rettig also opposed and called it “a solution in search of a problem.”
“Thank you for bringing this to our attention, I think we still have some things to work on,” Sullivan said to Ogden. “We do not want a bunch of McMansions popping up. We want the same outcome. We’re only a few words apart here.”
Busard, who faced criticism during the ordinance’s development added, “We created this ordinance to ensure farmers can farm,” while keeping residential growth in check.
The second consideration was set for Thursday, July 16, with the third and final to be taken on July 23. Sullivan, in an email, said, “I assume we will just vote without a lot of discussion. I got the feeling that at least three and perhaps four of us (supervisors) are going to reach out to the Farm Bureau to continue talking.”