Citing a need to follow the law as written, Burnett County Board chair Don Taylor said the board would not be able to vote on a proposed ordinance regarding zoning at last weeks’ county board meeting, held on Thursday, Sept. 23.
“We can’t vote on this today,” Taylor said prior to the discussion on a revised land use ordinance proposal, which would address zoning changes, agricultural zoning and creation of an exclusive agricultural district.
The much-anticipated ordinance did not pass state or legal muster, Taylor suggested, noting to the board that he felt it was wise to send back to the Land Use and Information Committee (LUI) for revision or clarifications.
Taylor said they were informed just a few days prior by the state that they may have an ordinance that possibly leaves them open to legal action from ag producers, if passed, as it was presented.
“So rather than move forward with a with a known flaw, I’d rather send it back to committee to resolve,” Taylor said.
The proposal would clarify ag zoning and eliminate one type, while allowing for a specific unlimited ag district.
District 19 Supervisor Craig Conroy is the chair of the LUI committee and clarified the concern and assured the gallery and board that the need for changes was not due to a lax proposal, but just the opposite.
“It’s not because we’re not tough enough,” Conroy said. “It’s because we would be vulnerable in court.”
Supv. Conroy noted that the county cannot put a limit on county lots, and while the issue is directly related to the concentrated agricultural feeding operations (CAFO ) issue that has consumed several communities, committees and led to concerns about pollution, water quality, smells and the like regarding a proposed 26,000-plus swine operation, the issue at hand was related to agricultural zoning and zoning only.
“Sighting is different,” Conroy said. “Believe me, it’s not like we’re advocating for CAFOs here…. we’d like to do more than they say we can do.”
Conroy said they would look at the concerns of the state and adjust accordingly, while also trying to do as much as they can to address air and water quality concerns.
“This is a really tough issue. We’re basically doing what we can, under the law, period,” Taylor said.
The comments drew light applause from the gallery, and Taylor later noted that “counties are considered ‘arms of the state,’” and therefore “can only do what the state laws say you can do.”
He later said he had “taken too many oaths in his career to vote for something that isn’t legal.”
District 7 Supervisor Gene Olson seemed to concur with Conroy, and discussed his own epiphany on the issue of CAFOS and regulation, noting his past involving swine and farming.
“What we need to remember is that we represent all people, not just the public interest groups,” Olson said, chastising Madison lawmakers who seem to favor business interests over resident interests and concerns. “When we elect people to Madison, they tend to forget that when they get there… without them, we wouldn’t have all these problems!”
Olson also said that he has been paying close attention to the concerns, research and the issues presented.
“My mind has changed … I represent all of the people,” Olson said. “But we need to be realistic, we can’t vote for something that’s illegal, because then we’re not doing our job.”
There was other discussion and comments, including on the so-called ‘Bayfield ordinance,’ which is considered more strict and has yet to be challenged, years later, as well as what the law says that Wisconsin towns can do to supersede the county, going further with their regulations.
In the end, the board voted to send the issue back to the LUI committee for review and possible consideration at their regular October board meeting.
In other board action:
• The board approved accepting a parcel of tax deeded property in the Town of Anderson for a new proposed county salt shed, which was noted recently in the Sentinel as an alternative to building a new salt shed with or in Grantsburg, using state money for highway maintenance.
“Grantsburg basically said ‘we really don’t want it here,’” Highway commissioner Mike Hoefs said.
Taylor and Hoefs answered several question on the parcel and the long-range plans for the property, which will still require committee approval for a conditional use permit before it is fully approved and site work can begin.
Taylor said that because the state is paying for it, the facility can be used by the county, nearby towns and even neighboring Polk County for winter road maintenance.
“The beauty is, the state’s paying for it,” Taylor added as the board voted to approve the tax deed and accept it as county property.
They will also have to write off the taxes owed, which Taylor said were “really not much money.”
It is unclear if the process will move fast enough to allow fall construction on the facility, but they are holding out hope.
“The clock is ticking, but we’re hoping to get it in this year,” Hoefs said.
• County administrator Nate Ehalt pointed out progress they are making on the budget process, as well as how the board will meet in special session Thursday, Oct. 7 to look in-depth at the latest on the proposed public safety facility in Siren.
“It’s going to be very important as we discuss a path forward, and give an update on the project,” Ehalt said.
He noted that the financing needed would require a so-called supermajority, or at least three-quarters of the board for approval, lest they be required to go to referendum for voter approval, which may add many months or more to the timeline of the project and may threaten affordable financing.
He said the initial estimate is that the county would likely borrow between $27-million and $30-million, with any reminder to come out of reserves.
• Chair Don Taylor said the county will see a zero-percent increase in health insurance costs this coming year, which he said was very good news for everyone involved.
• Administrator Ehalt outlined the budget process for the board, and also relayed the initial financial numbers, which suggest a $29.4-million county budget, as well as the added sales tax revenues, which he said were running about 20-percetn higher than even in 2019.
He also said they have done more studies on employment turnover and found no specific fault of the county or administration as a cause.
“If we did go deep into the data, we see there’s a lot happening,” Ehalt said, citing an aging population of employees and a general change in attitudes about long-term employment versus creating a career in county government, which he said is changing.
“There’s a significant number of people creating their own work,” Ehalt said, pointing to a common ‘labor shortage’ problem across the board and not just in government. “The reality is, we may not have staff who make it a career anymore. It’s not grim, we just may need to adjust.”