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Kandiyohi County mulls allowing high-density housing for animal ag operations

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WILLMAR -- In a competitive animal agriculture market that includes thousands of animals, there is an increasing demand to allow farms to provide on-site housing for employees.

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Kandiyohi County's zoning ordinance doesn't allow high-density housing in agriculture zones.

That could put the future of animal agriculture at risk in the county, said Bruce Reuss, during a hearing Monday before the Kandiyohi County Planning Commission.

As chairman of the agri-business and renewable energy committee of the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission, Reuss petitioned the county to amend the ordinance to allow multi-unit employee housing for animal agriculture operations as a conditional use permit.

After 2½ hours of intense discussion and hearing reasons why the ordinance should be amended by those who support the measure, and reasons why it shouldn't be amended by those opposed -- including a recommendation to deny the request by Zoning Administrator Gary Geer -- the planning commissioners determined they didn't have enough information to make a decision.

The commissioners unanimously approved a motion to postpone a decision until their next meeting -- 7 p.m. Aug. 8 on the second floor of the Health and Human Services Building in Willmar.

In the meantime, Geer will research questions the members have. Some of the questions raised include the legality of "unsetting" a conditional use permit, restricting certain types of housing and potential civil rights violations if the county limits who can live there.

The housing issue stems from a past proposal by Meadow Star Dairy, a $60 million dairy that's being developed in St. Johns Township near Pennock. The dairy's request for high-density housing was rejected by the Planning Commission two years ago.

The most efficient use of expensive farmland is to include multi-unit dwellings, like apartments or dormitories, into the footprint of large farm operations, Reuss said. But in the county's current ordinance, farmland zoned for A-1 ag preservation can have only one single-family home on a 40-acre parcel and land zoned for A-2 general agriculture can have four single-family homes on a 40-acre parcel.

That option wastes valuable farmland and promotes scattered residential housing in rural areas, which the county has tried to limit, Reuss said.

The EDC committee has requested the county change the ordinance so that any animal agriculture business can request multi-unit housing with a conditional use permit that would limit the housing to only as long as the business is in operation, Reuss said.

A petition signed by 18 county dairy farmers who support the amendment was presented.

"It's time for a progressive approach" said Nate Hultgren, one of the Meadow Star Dairy developers, adding that on-site housing is a way to address ag biosecurity, be responsible to the community and keep agriculture strong.

There was vocal opposition to employee housing among the 20 people attending the meeting Monday.

Jim Heidecker, of Pennock, said it was "anti-American" to have, what he called, a "commune" on a farm.

Warren Carlson, of Pennock, said he's operated his manufacturing business since 1966 without needing to have his 20 employees live on site and he doesn't think animal agriculture operations need it either. Carlson called it "captive employee housing."

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In his recommendation to deny the request to amend the ordinance, Geer said the proposal is not compatible with the county's comprehensive plan.

The comprehensive plan, which is used to guide zoning decisions, "contains no statements in support of housing concentrations of laborers at their place of work and contains many statements in opposition to this concept," Geer said.

Some of those statements indicate that residential growth is "encouraged" to take place in existing urban growth areas to preserve the rural character.

Reuss said "encouraged" does not mean "required." If that were the case, he said there would be limited residential housing in rural Kandiyohi County.

Dan Lippert, who helped draft the comprehensive plan 10 years ago, said it was written before multi-unit employee housing for agriculture was even an issue here. Agriculture has changed and he said the comprehensive plan allows for review and flexibility to meet the needs of the new "reality."

John Dean, a member of the Planning Commission, said the comprehensive plan should be a "living and moving plan" and not static and unable to be modified.

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Carolyn Lange
A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers county government and regional news with the West Central Tribune.
(320) 894-9750
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