Westfield meeting starts with a surprise
Westfield Township residents met last week to discuss whether the township should establish its own zoning ordinance. But the meeting generated more questions than answers as the two sides now debate whether the meeting that was held was the one that was advertised.
Controversy surfaced almost immediately. During the first item on the agenda, designated as supervisor business, an attorney presented an interim ordinance that would temporarily prohibit establishing new land uses and land-use and zoning regulations and restrictions in the township. The presenting attorney, Jack Parry, was attending at the request of Supervisor Bruce Wolf.
Parry said he specializes in land-use issues, and Wolf had asked him for an opinion on the petition presented at the annual meeting that led to last week’s session. That petition, Parry said, asked for a meeting where citizens would be able to give their input on possible local zoning regulations.
“It’s a major undertaking,” Parry said of a local ordinance. First, he said, the township would need a comprehensive plan, and then residents would have to decide what type of zoning ordinance they want.
The township would need to decide how to implement and enforce any plan, and a zoning administrator would need to be hired.
“There’s a price tag for having a zoning administrator,” he said.
The petition presented, Parry said, is to look at zoning regulations and decide how residents want to proceed.
“The question is, do you want to turn it over to the citizens to vote, or do you want to have some control over it?” he said.
“It seems Mr. Wolf wants the board to have some control.
“It looks like 150 to 200 people are here. So you want their input.”
Parry said the ordinance he was suggesting could remain in effect for up to one year, or the town board could rescind it at any time. It would give the board time to look at the issue, hear from residents and make a decision, Parry said.
Attorney Jim Peters, who represents Lowell and Evelyn Trom in a lawsuit against Dodge County regarding feedlots, countered that if an ordinance was to be considered, the township should have given public, published notice that the issue would come up.
Peters asked, unsuccessfully, several times for the notice from the newspaper to be read.
“You need publication; posting does not meet the standard,” he said.
“There was never anything that came out that an ordinance might be adopted.”
Township supervisors passed the interim ordinance before moving to the public-comment portion of the meeting.
Discussion on the ordinance mainly involved the two attorneys, and the board passed it on a 3-0 vote.
Wolf then was chosen as the moderator for the citizen-input portion of the meeting, and discussion was initially limited to residents of the township or those who “had a taxable interest.” It ultimately was opened up to anyone wishing to speak.
Much of the discussion focused on questions regarding feedlots and included comments from several feedlot owners.
Dodge County Environmental Services Director Mark Gamm was present to answer questions, as were several other county officials.
Gamm said the county requires that a feedlot be at least 1,000 feet from a residence.
A question also arose about putting a feedlot on a parcel of 6 acres, as opposed to 53 acres for a home.
Gamm said a minimum of 3 acres is needed for a home, but there is a limit to how many 3-acre parcels can be in a section. There can only be one 3-acre parcel per quarter-section, and if that density is already met, 53 acres is considered a farm.
Jim Ostlie, a livestock specialist with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, was also on hand, saying his job is to track zoning ordinances in townships.
The Department of Agriculture supports livestock agriculture, Ostlie said, but also understands that zoning is sometimes necessary. In those cases, he said, the department offers help to townships and to make sure restrictions are fair and science-based.
Sonja Trom Eayrs spoke on behalf of the group Dodge County Concerned Citizens, which had originated the petition calling for the meeting. She said it was unfortunate that the issue of planning and zoning had to come up in the context of feedlots, but it was reasonable to talk about it.
She said citizens cannot trust the state or county to do the right thing, and there was no water or manure management in the county. Only six feedlots in the county have water-use permits, and only one (Jim Masching’s) is in Westfield Township. Only 37 have manure-management plans, she said.
“The air and water belong to all of us,” Trom Eayrs said.
A number of farmers also spoke about the importance of livestock agriculture to the area in supporting businesses and allowing young people to continue or begin farming.
Nick Masching said he is a third-generation farmer in the township, and livestock farming will allow him to start a family, send kids to school locally, support local businesses and continue the family farm.
Westfield Township already has planning and zoning, resident Jerry Wilson said. Residents already have to deal with the county and state and in some cases the federal government, he said.
“This just adds another layer,” Wilson said. “We don’t need another layer.”
There was another round of discussion over the interim ordinance as board members decided how to proceed.
Parry recommended that the board allow two more weeks for written comments to accommodate residents who might not be comfortable speaking in public. He further recommended that the board reconvene next month.
Peters again questioned the approval of the interim ordinance and how it was posted.
He also said he was not trying to “shut down agriculture,” but to help.
“Do you want venture-capital firms coming in and buying up land?” he asked.
Having an ordinance would not mean the township would have to have a zoning administrator, he said, nor would it be costly.
“You may not want an ordinance now,” he said, “but in a few years you may want one.”
Board members took Parry’s advice and will accept written comments for two weeks and discuss the issue again next month, although there was little board support for a zoning ordinance.
“On March 10,” said Paul Fiebiger, “we had an election. There were 151 votes; Lowell got 34, I got 117. I thought it settled it with the election.
“That’s what I thought. It was a landslide.”
“The board is not in favor of zoning,” said Wolf. “What bothered me was the mistruths of this petition.
“I kind of got offended by this petition going around. We do look out for the residents.”