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Fixing the UDO

P&Z Commission approves changes requested by Farm Bureau, supervisors to decide on April 9
Planning, Development & Sustainability Director Josh Busard and Assistant Director Nate Mueller respond to a formal request by the Johnson County Farm Bureau to amend the Unified Development Ordinance during a Monday, March 9, meeting of the Planning and Zoning Commission. Thirty-four changes were approved and sent to the Board of Supervisors for consideration.

IOWA CITY– Farmers tend to have a knack for fixing things from fences to tractors, and anything in-between. Johnson County’s farmers have been itching for an opportunity to fix problems they see with the county’s Unified Development Ordinance (UDO), which was passed in December by the board of supervisors and implemented on Jan. 15. The Johnson County Farm Bureau took the first step in making repairs and adjustments to the UDO by submitting an application to amend the UDO’s text, at a cost of $750.
Seven proposed amendments were presented at a Monday, March 9, regular meeting of the Johnson County Planning and Zoning (P&Z) Commission, which after several hours of discussion, resulted in 34 changes being approved on a 4-0 vote with Commissioner Mike Parker absent. Nine changes were denied by P&Z on a 3-1 vote with Commissioner Kathy Swenka in opposition.
In a Jan. 24 letter to Josh Busard, Planning, Development & Sustainability (PDS) Director, and the P&Z Commission, Mark Ogden, president of the Johnson County Farm Bureau, outlined the proposals.
“The amendments’ purpose is to implement the stated intent of the county board of supervisors, planning and zoning commission, and PDS staff in adopting the UDO such that the language of the ordinance mirrors the stated intentions,” Ogden wrote. He stated the UDO does not “consistently refer to Iowa Code section 335.2 (regarding regulation of agriculture) and uses language inconsistent with this code provision.” The first proposed amendment, for example, aimed to clean up this inconsistency by removing the word “regulation” from provisions in the UDO, and replacing it with “ordinance.” Other language changes included adding “farm barns” to the list of agricultural outbuildings eligible for the agricultural exemption and striking a requirement that a farmer prove to the county they obtain a profit through agriculture (citing Iowa Code 335.2 does not have such a requirement in determining “agricultural use” of land).
The Farm Bureau also called for eliminating authorization through the UDO for a fact-finding public hearing by the supervisors on an agricultural exemption application as well as removing the exemption application requirement for all agricultural outbuildings, barns and structures regardless of the size of the land parcel, and including farm houses, which might not be located on the land the occupant farms. “We encourage the planning and zoning commission to reconsider its treatment of farm houses to pragmatically reflect modern agriculture,” the letter stated.
On March 9, Nate Mueller, PDS assistant director, sent a memo to the commission rebutting the Farm Bureau’s proposed amendments. While minor changes in wording were agreeable, overall it was PDS’s recommendation to deny the proposals.
“On the whole, staff’s opposition grows from the concerns that these changes would open the door to uncontrolled urban sprawl into the Agricultural Future Land Use areas of the county. The lower the bar to achieve exemption, the more people will try to reach in order to abuse it as a loophole to get residential development they couldn’t otherwise have if they followed the Comp Plan and UDO,” Mueller wrote.
“Staff recommends denial of the ordinance as a whole because we do not feel the importance of codifying commonly understood interpretations and minor wording changes outweighs the potentially major (and in some cases, possibly illegal) policy shifts recommended by this text amendment,” he added.
The board of supervisors are expected to review and take action on the recommendations passed by P&Z on Thursday, April 9, during a regular meeting, starting with a public hearing at 5:30 p.m.