Variances for rural homes debated by county panelAn ongoing pattern of granting variances to prospective home builders has at least one appointed county official wondering if the real-life application of Davison County’s zoning code is conflicting with county land use goals.
By: Ross Dolan, The Daily Republic
An ongoing pattern of granting variances to prospective home builders has at least one appointed county official wondering if the real-life application of Davison County’s zoning code is conflicting with county land use goals.
Davison County Planning Commission member Tom Greenway said the current zoning code, which requires a minimum lot size of 25 acres to build a home in the agricultural and ag residential zones, has had its problems.
“We’ve run into so many circumstances where it hasn’t worked for people,” Greenway said.
Acting on the recommendation of the Planning Commission, the county commissioners recently approved a zoning variance permitting the subdivision of 7 acres of land from property in Mount Vernon Township being sold by Mark Meier to Ryan Jensen.
“If you look back through our (meeting) minutes,” Greenway said, “you’ll see that I voted against all of these variances when they first started coming in several years ago. Since then we hardly ever deny a variance any more because denial puts people in such a precarious position.”
Some applicants don’t have enough land to meet setback criteria and many others seeking variances do so because they have had difficulty securing home financing.
“Banks won’t finance over 10 acres for homes,” Greenway said, noting that Jensen’s request was typical of many variances the planning commission has recommended for approval.
It is the Davison County Board of Commissioners, sitting as the Board of Adjustment, however, and not the Planning Commission, that grants or denies a variance based on the planners’ recommendation.
The Board of Adjustment did so, and in a more recent action, the county commissioners approved a new plat of the property last week.
“What we did is consistent with the area where the land is situated,” Greenway said of Jensen’s application.
Gary Stadlman was the only member of the Planning Commission who voted against Jensen’s variance application.
“My reason for voting ‘no’ on the application was that it was not even close to the 25-acre minimum; not that I was against the young man who would be building on it, but because the property to the north met the 25-acre-or-more requirement, and the property to the south was just about at 25 acres,” Stadlman said.
Stadlman refused to speculate on what the commissioners’ decision might mean for future subdivision applications, saying only, “It will be interesting. We’ll have to see how it plays out.”
Farmstead applications are legitimate exceptions for farming families, Stadlman said.
“Most of (the applicants) were involved in farming operations,” Stadlman said.
He didn’t think it was right that a person involved in day-to-farm family farming should be forced to live elsewhere should they desire to build a home on a family-owned property.
Current zoning law allows the sale of “farmsteads,” which are defined as the original farmhouse, associated out-buildings, driveways and shelterbelts.
Stadlman said he was unaware of any family connection in the sale between Meier and Jensen.
Greenway acknowledged Stadlman’s position.
“I know how he feels about it,” he said, “but people are just not going to build or anything unless we bend the rules a little, so that’s what we did.”
While he would not be in favor of a wholesale revision of the zoning code, Greenway says a review is in order.
“We’ve just run into so many situations where it just won’t work with people with a 25-acre limitation,” he said.
Planning Commission Chairwoman Brenda Bode, who farms with her husband near Mount Vernon, agreed and added that her board has been consistent in allowing variances north of Mount Vernon.
“I don’t believe the variances encourage sprawl because the most of the projects we recommended for approval have been clustered, which is far better than putting a single home in the middle of a 25-acre field,” she said.
The 25-acre rule has only turned out to be a hindrance to financing, Bode said, and the rule has no bearing on whether or not a property is used for farming.
Banks won’t lend on those sorts of acreages, she said, and there are few young couples getting started in farming who are in a position to make payments on a home and a large acreage.
Bode, an experienced farmer, said the land also suffers and becomes weedy when young farmers are overextended, because they are not in a position when they are starting out to care for it.
It’s important to make some accommodations for young start-up farmers, she believes.
“If we drive our young people away, it won’t matter what we do out here,” Bode said.
Ignorance not bliss
Unfamiliarity with the county’s zoning code often creates problems, Greenway said.
“Some people start (a project) and find themselves in a predicament,” he said. “We’ve had to give variances where people have already put up the building or didn’t realize there were property setback requirements.”
Greenway said the 25-acre minimum lot size for homes was a recommendation of Planning and Development District III in Yankton, which assisted Davison County in developing its zoning code. As part of the process, the zoning codes of other counties were reviewed.
“In Minnehaha County, it’s 40 acres and that’s it,” Greenway said. “If you don’t have 40 acres, don’t come in. They’ve stood by that and they still stand by it,” he said.
Brookings County, which has a 25-acre limitation, has also taken a stricter line for enforcement.
Some counties and communities would require the removal of such projects, or levy stiff penalties to issue a variance after-the-fact, but the Davison County Planning Commission has not taken a hard line on enforcement.
“We’ve never taken that kind of stand,” Greenway said.
“Planning and zoning is a tough situation and you have to look at every project differently,” he said. “We’ve turned down a few, especially in cases where the applicant wanted to switch from residential to industrial uses. By and large I think the board has done a good job meeting the needs of the county and keeping things halfway orderly.
“Whether it’s good, bad or otherwise, we’ve gone with 25 acres but we’ve made a lot of variances,” he said.
Bode said she doesn’t know what the “magic number,” should be when it comes to setting acreage limits for zoning. She wasn’t part of the original process that set-up the 25-acre minimums, she said, but it might be one of many topics the county chooses to consider when it tackles a review of Davison County’s comprehensive master plan next year, but it wouldn’t be atop on her list.
“More important is how do we maintain our roads and bridges?” she said. “They influence everybody.”
As a retail hub, Mitchell draws people in a 50-mile radius, she said. “If our roads are not acceptable,” she said, “they’ll go in a different direction.”
“We need to have some good future-oriented conversations and stop worrying about piddling things,” she said.