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Minor change in Kandiyohi County, Minn., zoning ordinance eases variance standard

WILLMAR -- The Kandiyohi County Planning Commission did a little bit of housekeeping this week when it voted unanimously to recommend approval of a seemingly minor change in wording to the zoning ordinance to put it in compliance with a revised state law.

But changing the former word "hardship" to the new words "practical difficulty" could make a difference in the standards boards use in granting variances for location and size of residential or commercial structures.

Under the changes approved in May by the Legislature -- and proposed under the Kandiyohi County zoning changes -- the strict legal standards for proving "hardship" will be lessened when property owners seek a variance.

Instead they will be asked to demonstrate "practical difficulty."

The new changes are actually very similar to the long-standing practices of the county variance board and its previous ordinance," said Zoning Administrator Gary Geer.

He doesn't think the change will make a big difference locally.

But statewide, the revised law has been cheered by county and municipal zoning boards.

The new wording was requested after the Minnesota Supreme Court decided in 2010 that the definition of "hardship" in the state statues was to be interpreted very narrowly when it came to issuing variances.

As the court saw it, hardship meant that the land would have no reasonable use without a variance.

In reality, many people seek variances to build a structure a little closer to a lake or a foot or two closer to the property line than allowed because of the terrain of the lot or to avoid trees to better capture more solar energy.

That was hardly a hardship under the Supreme Court's definition and caused problems for city and county zoning boards across the state.

In some cases, municipal zoning boards were prohibited from issuing variances altogether since the Supreme Court ruling.

The court said the Legislature would have to fix the problem by changing the law.

Signed into law this spring by Gov. Mark Dayton, the revised statute eliminates the word "hardship" and says variances may be granted when the applicant establishes that there are "practical difficulties" in complying with the official control.

The law defines practical difficulties to mean that "the property owner proposes to use the property in a reasonable manner not permitted by an official control; the plight of the landowner is due to circumstances unique to the property not created by the landowner; and the variance, if granted, will not alter the essential character of the locality."

The revised law also makes the wording consistent between county and municipal zoning ordinances.

Geer said county zoning ordinances cannot be in conflict with or less restrictive than state law. The proposed changes to the county ordinance will put the county in compliance, he said.

The Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners is expected to take final action on the proposed ordinance changes at its meeting next week.

Also at its meeting Monday, the Planning Commission agreed to recommend approval of a conditional use permit requested by Margaret Dokken for commercial storage units in Colfax Township on the condition that all items associated with the business be stored indoors.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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