The debate over whether to create a new countywide overly zone to offer residents some regulatory protection against specific industries – mainly commercial wind and solar farms – will be taken up again Thursday by the Reno County Planning Commission.
A majority of the seven-member board had an initial discussion on the issue during a 90-minute meeting Sept. 24, but came to no clear consensus other than that they should explore four options.
The four include:
– Expanding existing zoning regulations, but only into the southeast part of the county that was near the boundaries of NextEra Energy’s proposed Pretty Prairie Wind farm but outside of current zoning.
– Imposing all existing zoning and subdivision regulations over the whole county.
– Creating a countywide overlay zone that regulates only specific industries, like wind, landfill, or confined animal feeding facilities.
– Or do nothing.
A couple of members expressed a desire to hear from county residents their thoughts and desires before acting.
Board chair Lisa French, however, advised, “our job is not to take the pulse of the people.”
“We’ve gotten some of that,” she said. “Our job is to make recommendations to the commission. And it’s their job to determine what makes sense in terms of staff and what residents think.”
A half dozen residents from the southeast quadrant who’ve attended the board’s meeting since the NextEra application did address the board, most reiterating their desire for zoning.
The group previously submitted a petition seeking zoning, which contained 70 signatures. They indicated all of the signers live or have a property in the unzoned area, though it was unclear what percentage of the property in the area they represent.
Only about the eastern third of the county is currently zoned. But even within that eastern third, there are large areas outside of zoning.
The zoning boundaries were created primarily by zoning certain distances around Hutchinson, South Hutchinson, Buhler, Yoder, and Haven, plus a mandated 3-mile buffer around Cheney Reservoir.
They were zoned largely to prevent the expansion of manufactured or mobile homes into the county, County Planner Mark Vonachen explained to the board.
The buffer around the lake creates oddly shaped boundaries that do not follow property lines.
That leaves about 16 square miles in the county’s far southeast corner, between the Sedgwick County line and the lake, and another 15 miles south of Yoder, between K-14 and Yoder Road, unzoned.
Vonachen started off last month’s discussion explaining the county’s current zoning and cautioning residents what it might mean.
The county rewrote its regulations in 2016, eliminating the traditional residential, commercial, and industrial zonings.
Instead, everything falls under conditional use permit regulations. A property owner must apply for a permit to put anything on the property besides a home and additional outbuildings that combined encompass less than 20,000 square feet.
If the use of the land changes, a new permit is required.
The rules, however, also limit the number of lot splits that can occur on land zoned as agricultural.
Current housing clusters that have sprung up on smaller lots in the unzoned parts of the southeast area, from the construction of individual homes, would not be allowed to occur under zoning.
Individual 40-acre lots would still be allowed one lot split. Otherwise, developments with more than two houses would have to be platted and interior roads constructed. That way, a single road empties onto the county or township road, rather than individual driveways tying into public streets.
The reasons are primarily to protect the condition of public roads and speed limits, which would have to slow if too many driveways empty onto the street.
“Maintaining all the entryways and ditch tubes could bankrupt a township,” Vonachen said.
Sanitation codes are already countywide, so they wouldn’t be impacted by new regulations.
“The easiest option is no change, but it may not be the best option,” French said.
Southeastern county residents are asking for zoning, noted member Harley Macklin.
“I don’t know if it’s 100% of the people in the triangle, but that will have a high influence on my decision,” he said.
It makes sense to zone that area as well as areas where circles of zoning boundaries go across a property that’s split by the current zoning, French said, and perhaps extending that to K-14.
Commissioner Russ Goertzen said he also like that idea, but suggested extending to property on both sides of K-14.
Commissioners Steven Westfahl then suggested taking it a mile west of K-14.
Resident Jean Conkling, during the public comment period, asked the board to move the line another mile further west.
“We live two miles west of K-14,” Conkling said. “Having been part of just listening to what the people east have been going through, it made me nervous about being totally unzoned and some of the problems. If you only do part of the county, consider moving it another mile west.”
Goetzen, noting one of the circular lines extending from the lake boundary goes all the way to Valley Pride Road, agreed they might want to look at going two miles west, to Broadacres Road.
Her biggest concern about expanding zoning at all, French said, was the impact on county staff.
Vonachen, the only employee in planning, though he’s assisted by Public Works office staff, said he could handle expansion in the east. Countywide zoning would require at least one more full-time person.
The overlay zone would not impose existing zoning or subdivision regulations on parts of the county that don’t have them, but would be used simply to regulate specific industries or land uses.
The idea was proposed by a consultant when the planning board was drafting the county’s Comprehensive Plan last year.
Defined as an “agricultural protection zone,” it could regulate as many industries or uses as the county desired, “from two to 10,” Vonachen said.
“It can be expanded countywide, or just somewhere between where we are now,” he said.
Goertzen said he wasn’t a fan over the overlay zones.
“We’re going to miss one of two, and it will come back, not to haunt us, but to have to address it,” he said.
He also asked how they could create an overlay that was both restrictive and inviting.
“You want to regulate them, but you want to be inviting for them to come into the county,” he said.
If they imposed only a countywide overlay zone, Vonachen said, it would not have a significant impact on his work until an industry applied for a permit.
“I put hundreds and hundreds of hours on the case in the past, but it’s not something I’d do day-to-day,” he said. “We could also bring in a consultant like we did.:
“If you want to go further, do landfills or confined feeding or more potential land uses, like trucking, landscaping, or a recreational facility, that would put a lot more stress on the department.”
Also, if they created an overlay zone, the board would have to develop specific regulations for each industry, setting out requirements or limits to secure a conditional use permit.
While Westfahl indicated a willingness to test the desire for countywide zoning, based on the recent reaction to NextEra and how old the zoning boundaries are, he thought the priority was to address the southeast corner of the county.
“They’re ready to see us do something,” he said. “At least that portion of the county needs addressing. I don’t know if we can address the western half of the county at the same time. I don’t know if you want to take them to the county commission separately, but they’re ready.”
“It looks good to me if we fill in the southeast corner, and I like the idea of going west of K-14 for a mile so. We need to pursue that and not wait for more meetings and more meetings and more meetings.”
Mary Lynn Baker was one of those saying she’d like to hear more from the public.
“I’ve not thought about a lot of these issues that have been brought up,” she said. “It would change things. At all the hearings, we heard we want someone to build here, but they won’t because of the wind farms. But with zoning, it won’t be as easy to build homes either. I can see being yelled at again. I don’t think no change is probably an option, but I’m not ready to vote on anything. I want more input.”
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