Townships talk planning and zoning

Representatives of various townships in Ward County, including Eureka, Afton, and Surrey, attended the county planning and zoning commission meeting Thursday night to share their opinions and feelings over a new legal opinion stating that subdivisions in townships are to be managed and approved by the county and not the townships themselves.

“We had handed out a letter that was sent to the townships and we had notified them to come to this meeting concerning a state’s attorney’s opinion actually, the attorney general’s opinion concerning zoning authority and subdivision authority,” said Dana Larsen, Ward County engineer. “Basically it stated that based on some recent information we found out due to lawyers looking into who’s got certain authority, it was determined that townships do not have authority, based on North Dakota Century Code to do subdivisions.”

The findings are based not only on state’s attorneys or the attorney general’s opinion on their readings of the Century Code, but also on state statutes. It was determined, however, that the townships retain their planning rights.

“This came from a developer that wanted, unfortunately, to do a subdivision in Eureka Township,” Larsen said, answering commissioner John Fjeldahl’s

concerns of where this investigation came from. Lawyers the developer hired pored over state laws and obtained opinions to maintain that counties were the governing body for subdivisions.

Gary Garnzotto, the self-described “unfortunate” chairman of Eureka Township, had Larsen explain the “magnitude” of the subdivison that the developer wanted to put in within the township. The development would include 700 homes “in between Minot and Ruthville about a mile and a half outside of Minot’s” extra territorial area “on both sides of 83.”

“We’re going to have to work out a procedure,” Larsen said. “When you subdivide land many times they want to change the zoning, and we’re going to have to work together on that.”

Things got somewhat divisive with township representatives, most notably from Mark Severson, the planning and zoning appointee for Afton Township. At one point he said that he thanks the commission for their offer to “help” the townships with subdivisions, but that they “don’t want it.”

“A little history, I think, is in order,” Severson said. “Back about 40 years ago Afton Township took back their zoning regulation, or their zoning options, and established their own zoning resolution. As did a number of other townships in the area and in recent years even more townships have taken that option back,” he asserted, asking the commissioners, specifically John Fjeldahl, why they thought that is.

“I agree with it,” Fjeldahl responded. “Local control.”

“Local control,” Severson agreed. “They were unhappy with Ward County, Ward County board of commissioners. And then, lo and behold, the legislature grants an extra territorial two-mile zone to the city. And Dana, I appreciate your comments how you say ‘we will work with you and we’ll respect your ordinances’ but I don’t believe you for a minute. You may say that, but the next county commission may have completely different ideas about expansion into the area.

“Infrastructure, roads, sewer, water, snow-removal, fire protection. Developers don’t give a rip about that,” Severson continued. “They want to sell the property, get the development out there and they’re gone. It’s the local township that’s strapped with the burden of providing” infrastructural and service needs. “I don’t think that the Ward County commission has the time on their hands to not only review their zoning ordinances, but now you want to take on the zoning ordinaces of seven additional townships surrounding Minot? And work with them?”

“First of all, we don’t, your planning and zoning and second of all we actually, did not want the subdivison stuff,” explained Larsen. “However, state law says that we are responsible for it.”

“So your real battle is not with us, per se, but with the state,” said commissioner Amy Moen, summarizing the source of the issue.

Other business

– A variance for a home in Harrison Township was approved unanimously, with commissioner Shelly Weppler abstaining because she lives within the neighborhood. The lot owner wanted to build a house that didn’t need “so many steps,” 12, up to the main floor to abide by flood resolution rules. His wish was for aesthetic reasons, as he believes that having his house so elevated would detract from the neighborhood because it wouldn’t match the other homes. Although the home is within the flood plain area, it was not affected by the 2011 flood. Vice-chairman Don Siebert expressed concern that if they approve too many variances like this one that homeowners may lose their flood insurance for not abiding by resolutions and FEMA’s FIRM maps. Other commissioners recognized and shared his concern, notably Fjeldahl who hadn’t voted for previous, similar variances. The precedent the approval will set, as described by Weppler, is that the commissioners can approve variances for homes that were unaffected by the flood, not for homes that were affected.

– The commission did an initial reading for a new county zoning ordinace text, which was prepared by Planning and Zoning Administrator Amber Turnquest. “It’s adding new definitions so that it incorporates some of the issues that have been coming up, the questions that people have been coming in and asking,” Turnquest said before giving a rundown of notable updates to the ordinances. Some of the updates: clarity on ordinances that are misinterpreted often; text is added to recognize that the air base district exists; wind-turbines; a change in special-uses allowances that lists specific uses under each type of zone so that petitioners will know what to expect, and that if it’s not listed as a possible variance for a zone then a petitioner will know not to even try; and added clarity to gravel and other earth pit useage that will allow for better identification, and listing allowances and penalties. The motion to approve the ordinance for a second reading, which will include public input, was passed by all the commissioners with the exception of Fjeldahl and Norman Livingston. Much of Fjeldahl’s opposition to the updated ordinance text was a “property rights” issue, where he expressed his belief that the county was forcing easements and right-of-ways on landowners that they may not want or need. The text will also have to be read twice by the Ward County Commission before it becomes final.