Dozens share opposition to proposed Comprehensive Plan and Zoning Regulations
By Cheyenne Alexis
The Washington County Planning Commission, Board of Supervisors, Planning and Zoning Administrator Chris Shewchuk and Keith Marvin of Marvin Planning Consultants listened to almost 40 individuals share their opposition to the Comprehensive Plan and Zoning Regulations draft.
An estimated 450 people attended the public hearing, which was held at the Blair Public Library and Technology Center. Some individuals spilled out into the hallways and some out into the parking lot.
Supervisor Steve Kruger was absent from the meeting due to a conflict, though every other member of the County Board and Planning Commission was present.
No action was taken at the meeting.
The Comprehensive Plan had not been updated since 2005, and the changes to the current draft began around 2016, prior to Shewchuk being hired in 2020.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, plans were halted until 2022, and the draft was published on the county website in August.
Four open house meetings were held in November in Herman, Kennard, Fort Calhoun and Arlington for residents to speak to Marvin Planning Consultants, Shewchuk and board members.
"The Comprehensive Plan is required in order to implement zoning in the county," Shewchuk said during the hearing.
Before the joint hearing, the Planning Department created an email, firstname.lastname@example.org, for residents to send their specific questions or concerns. Residents also mailed in letters to the department.
Introducing the plan
The meeting began at 6 p.m., with Chris Shewchuk, Planning and Zoning administrator, speaking about the plan and future land use map.
"One of the main elements of a Comprehensive Plan is the future land use map," he said. "Everything here is proposed, it's a draft document subject to change after tonight and when it goes to the board for approval or adoption.
"The Comprehensive Plan does a few things: growth of development and future development and uses, it's intended as an informational administrative tool for county leaders and their decision-making process and considering future developments and the Comprehensive Plan is required in order to implement zoning in the county."
"The agricultural area is intended for preservation of ag land or ag uses, it does allow low density residential development," Shewchuk said. "The transitional area (south of U.S. Highway 30 and west of state Highway 133) does allow higher-density development than the ag area."
Shewchuk also addressed the urban reserve area, which, according to the future land use map, is situated between U.S. Highway 75 and state Highway 133 south of Blair.
"This area will be for more dense development, including residential and commercial," Shewchuk said. "The residential development could reach densities typically seen in urban areas, provided some level of centralized water and sewer are available in the development. Anything dense, such as a Lakeland-type development, would have to have water and sewer available to it to be approved."
Zoning regulations and some items in the draft were discussed by Shewchuk.
"There are a couple major revisions had in the Zoning Regulations," he said. "We have developed setbacks from livestock feeding operations, anywhere from a quarter mile to three-eighths of a mile for existing feeding operations, new residents, and it does go further as feeding operations get to be more than 10,000 animal units.
"A larger lot size for the A-1 (agriculture) zoning district, going from 10.01 acres to 20 acres, and then density regulations within the A-1 and A-2 zoning districts. In the A-1, which would have a 20-acre minimum lot size, a limit of three dwelling units per quarter section and the A-2 district would have a limit of eight dwelling units in a quarter section."
The Land Use Matrix is one of prime components of the Zoning Regulations, which is a list of 700 different types of uses that are possible and shows where the uses are permitted in the county, Shewchuk said.
Shewchuk mentioned the eight main concerns he, the Planning Department and both board members have received from the public:
Higher taxes, restrictive property rights, allowance of farm animals and crops, selling of farm products, home occupations, A-1 and A-2 density restrictions, A-1 20-acre lots restrictions and the document creation process.
"Higher taxes based on a new zoning, we verified with the current county assessor and former county assessor that the zoning of your property does not have any effect on the assessment value of the property," Shewchuk said. "The restriction of property rights, I understand we've had a lot of comments about that, but everybody has to understand people when we say, 'You have your rights, you should be able to do what you want to on your property,' you have to understand your neighbor has rights, too, to enjoy their property peacefully. If you're doing something offensive, that's where zoning comes in."
Public shares concerns
The second part of the meeting, which lasted until 9 p.m., focused on hearing from the public.
Concerns ranged from property and land rights, gun rights, protecting rural land and protecting small businesses.
Don Jeffrey was the first resident to speak of the night, and asked the board about the planning process of the draft.
"There's a lot of concerns here, and these are the people of Washington County that voted for you guys, and we would just like you guys to watch over us and take care of us," he said. "We elected you to do what's best for us."
Pam Daly discussed her dislike of the term "hobby farms."
"The definition of a hobby is any activity that a person pursues because they enjoy it and with no intention of making a profit," she said. "We do not have hobby farms that are concerned here, we have people trying to make a living or supplement a living so they can continue living here. I would wipe out the term 'hobby farms,' it's very offensive."
Dan Daly said he was concerned about people potentially moving from urban areas who may have complaints about their neighbors who have agricultural activities or work going on.
"The incentives here seem to be for people who don't yet live here, not people who do live here," he said. "We moved up here 43 years ago because we like the smell of animals, we like to cut hay. We don't mind being up early in the morning, we like the sound of a tractor in the distance. The people who are going to move up here, they're going to want a hardtop road, they're not going to want a tractor to slow them down on their way to Omaha, they're not going to want the smell of hay being cut in the morning."
David O'Hanlon, who was on the Planning Commission during the 2005 update, said he moved to the county for the rural atmosphere.
"This county has always been a rural county," he said. "Even though I live between 75 and 133, I'd like to see some rural integrity take place. I don't want subdivisions wall-to-wall from Dutch Hall Road to Blair. I know you have to have some development, but when you start talking about high density and Lakeland-type developments with sewer and water, that scares me."
Sarah Mackie Jensen, a real estate agent and Washington County Chamber of Commerce member, said she was concerned for businesses in the area that could be rezoned.
"If the business owners are told they can no longer run their businesses out of their homes or properties, what will they do?" she said. "The easiest thing would be to relocate; however, that will be much harder than it sounds. Some of them have been there for many, many years — their whole life is based on that piece of ground."
McKenzi Lecolst, who alongside her two siblings run roadside businesses near their home on County Road P32, spoke to small businesses.
"I sell various types of cookies along with breads on the weekends and some weekdays in the summer to save up for college and other expenses that might come my way," she said. "It has come to my attention that there are decisions trying to be made that I cannot run my business as normal, which not only affects me, but it affects my brother and sister as well. How are kids like us supposed to save money for college, let alone have our own small business to be proud of if we're not even allowed to go out on our own land and sell our own product?"
Phil Bolling, who lives in Fort Calhoun, said he was concerned of losing property and farming rights for his family.
"I just wanted to show you how these changes could potentially impact a real husband, a real father who's really trying to do his best for his boys," he said through tears. "I would just ask you consider that, leave my dreams, my family dreams intact. Let us have the use of our land we see fit."
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