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EDC to ask county to support on-farm worker housing

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news Willmar, 56201
West Central Tribune
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Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

WILLMAR -- Saying that zoning policies should support and not hamstring local farmers, the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission will ask the Kandiyohi County Board to revise its ordinance on allowing multi-unit housing on farm sites.

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"There is a need," said Kim Larson, a dairy farmer and member of the EDC's agribusiness and renewable energy committee.

The EDC's action is at the instigation of the ag committee, which has been studying the issue for the past two years.

The proposal from the committee: Establish a conditional use permit process for farm operators to develop multi-unit housing for their workers.

The operations board of the Economic Development Commission voted Thursday to draft some suggested language for a zoning ordinance amendment and submit it to the EDC's governing board, which meets Jan. 27. The recommendation, if it's approved by the governing board, would then be forwarded to the County Board of Commissioners.

Apartment-style dwellings for farm workers in Kandiyohi County have a short history steeped in frustration. They were proposed two years ago for Meadow Star Dairy, a $60 million dairy operation being developed in St. Johns Township west of Willmar.

The dairy's partners, who plan to milk more than 9,000 cows and have 30 to 40 employees, believe on-site housing will help make the enterprise more attractive -- and more biosecure -- for potential workers.

The county's zoning ordinance doesn't have a provision for this type of housing, however. Ultimately, Meadow Star had to withdraw its conditional use permit application for a multi-unit dwelling. Larson, who is one of the partners in the project, said Meadow Star is working within the existing ordinance to develop single-unit housing instead.

Meadow Star's experience made it clear there's a need to rethink local regulations governing farm worker housing, Larson said.

When he and the EDC ag committee researched the issue, they found 16 states where apartments or dormitory-style housing are allowed on farms for the employees.

"We're not breaking new ground. It is something that has been done elsewhere," Larson said.

In Minnesota, both Faribault and Stevens counties allow this type of housing, he said.

Larson showed pictures of dorm-style housing at a large-scale dairy operation near Morris. The building contains 16 units for up to 32 occupants, he said. "It's not intrusive. ... They have had nobody raise an issue with it."

Larson also gave board members a copy of a petition signed by a dozen local dairy farmers who support allowing on-site worker housing.

Earlier this week the Willmar City Council approved an ordinance amendment that eases some of the restrictions on employees at home-based occupations, said Bruce Peterson, the city's community development director.

Like on-site housing for farm workers, it represents evolving needs, Peterson said. "It's simply addressing new work force trends."

Steve Renquist, executive director of the Economic Development Commission, said there have been strong differences of opinion on the farm housing issue.

Agriculture is a major force in the local economy, however, and merits support, he said. "We're trying to promote agribusinesses. We want the county to go forward and flourish in all areas."

Duane Hultgren, chairman of the EDC operations board, recused himself from the discussion on Thursday and also abstained from the board's unanimous vote to forward the recommendation to the governing board. Hultgren chaired the St. Johns Township Board that originally approved the rezoning for Meadow Star Dairy in 2008, a move that was later denied by the county Planning Commission.

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Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at http://healthbeat.areavoices.com. Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

(320) 235-1150
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