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May 17, 2021

4/9/2021 12:10:00 PM
One-acre buildable discussion still underway

Three citizens have been assigned to a select county work group— tasked with re-writing an ordinance that for better or worse, has been a tool in the county land use tool box for conserving open space and rural aesthetics.  The working group is assigned to develop new wording replacing “one acre buildable,” a pre-requisite for new plats imposed by Chisago County since 1997.  

This working group’swordsmithing mission nearly evaporated, however, before the heavy lifting got started.  Last week on a  3-3 tie vote, with one abstention, the county planning commission killed a motion to rescind a previous motion supporting replacing one acre buildable.  That original 4-3 March planning commission vote still stands,  recommending to eradicate the one-acre buildable clause through a re-write.  
Planning Commission member John Sutcliffe was the abstention.

He remarked last week he doesn’t know at this juncture what the best thing is to do.

County Planning Commission Chair Shellene Johnson, David Whitney and Jim McCarthy make-up the working group. The Chair and David Whitney voted yes on Whitney’s motion to create a new buildable site requirement to be inserted into applicable county code. McCarthy was a no vote.

Chair Johnson reports there’s been some good discussion on the issues by the threesome, and the plan is to have wording ready for the May planning commission agenda.

Last week’s motion-maker, Frank Storm, had not been on the prevailing side of the original action. Yet, he said   there’d been insufficient debate and that rescinding the action calling for eliminating the one acre standard is the best course of action for now. He also felt the perception of a conflict of interest could be a concern.  Some planning commission members who voted to do away with the buildable standard work in real estate and others own large tracts, theoretically standing to benefit.

Commissioner Sutcliffe commented  he wants it clear he has nothing to gain from either vantagepoint.  It was Storm’s motion that died 3-3.
Chisago’s one-acre buildable pre-requisite was a tool that policymakers adopted for preserving rural character during an intensive period of new housing activity.    

The problem with it, some have pointed out,  is that the dwelling itself doesn’t even have to be erected on the “buildable” acreage, it’s just got to be in the lot.  They argue this does little to protect from buyers’ remorse.  

Another opinion is that modern practices can alleviate issues homeowners encounter with flooding,  poor soil conditions, by using drain tile, sump pumps, waterproof construction materials, etc.  

Chisago County also initiated other custom development practices in the fast-paced housing boom about 20 years ago;  Transfer of Development Credits, and green corridors to maintain contiguous habitat and travel zones for plants and animals for instance.  

One acre buildable was part of a balancing act to appease vocal private land use rights advocates and the conservationists when this county was described as the second-fastest growing county in the nation.

The whole effort to re-write the standards started when the County Board directed planning staff to consider current day pros and cons of the one acre buildable.

Planning was also asked to review the 10,000 square feet requirement for individual septic systems.

County Commissioner Mike Robinson recently clarified that contrary to mis-statements noted in the public records (minutes);  the County Board never gave direction to the planning commission to remove the one-acre buildable, only to take a look at it.

Environmental Services Director Kurt Schneider explained that the working group will bring a new definition of  compliance for new (lots) subdivisions.  

The planning commission would develop a draft ordinance and a public hearing date would be set.

As for individual septic system space needs, there was no specific planning commission vote recorded from the March planning commission hearing.

The 10,000 square feet required are meant to accomodate two systems, at 5,000 square feet a piece (a state standard). Future septic area currently must be identified should the original system need to be scrapped for whatever reason.

The county is proposing to word this part of the platting ordinance to allow licensed septic designers to present their own septic system layout for each application,  that complies with state wastewater rules.

Most comments at the planning commission hearing early in March were okay with leaving septic area and soils conditions up to professional licensed designers.

The planning commission also is considering allowing holding tanks on “seasonal” properties that can not accomodate a system.   This has become an issue with lakeshore small lots.  Newly-created lots must demonstrate ability to support a Tier One system now.

The county has shied away from holding tanks due to maintenance expenses and administrative costs for monitoring pumping records and inspecting every tank’s physical condition.  There were questions in the hearing on how “seasonal” will be  defined in the proposed ordinance revision.

No vote was taken on holding tank wording.  

Some issues highlighted by public comment at the March hearing show the wide range of opinion.

~Lent Township Planning Commission Chair Mike Willcoxen told planning commissioners “beautiful homesites” have been left unbuilt due to lots not complying with the one acre minimum buildable standard. He noted particularly Carlos Avery Wildlife Management Area borderlands have been “hindered from development” and rules “seem burdensome and should be removed.”

~ Chisago County Commissioner Chris DuBose, a planning commission liaison, supports tossing the mandatory one-acre buildable for new plats.  He said, there is a “...sensible and fair way to limit development rather than an arbitrary and non-logical based regulation.”
~ Real estate professional Greg Shaleen said his experience has been sometimes there are parcels that can accomodate the septic system standard,  but can’t meet the one acre buildable requirement.

~ Amador Township Board member Lin Strong wrote she opposes changing the standard.  The county is right to protect certain lands which are unable to demonstrate existence of even one acre of buildable area.

~ Betsy Rising, Nessel Township, said the conditions of compliance have been working, especially protecting lakeshore and wetlands. They should be left alone.


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