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Johnson County’s controversial ordinances in the crosshairs

Legislators take aim at the UDO’s ag regulations with bipartisan support
The Johnson County Board of Supervisors (from left) Janelle Rettig, Pat Heiden, Lisa Green-Douglas, Royceann Porter and Rod Sullivan, passed a Unified Development Ordinance (UDO) in December. State legislators passed two bills dismantling portions of the document codifying the county’s Comprehensive Land Use Plan.

DES MOINES– At a public hearing for Johnson County’s controversial Unified Development Ordinance (UDO), State Representative Mary Mascher (D-86) warned, “I am asking you to listen to what the people here have to say because if you don’t, we will end up dealing with it in the legislature.”
The UDO, codifying the Comprehensive Land Use Plan, was supposed to address county zoning procedures, but drew the ire of the agricultural community as concerns were raised over perceived efforts to regulate agriculture in conflict with Iowa Code. Throughout the development process, county supervisors, Planning, Development and Sustainability Director Josh Busard, and the county attorney’s office all stated repeatedly the document, and requirements relating to agricultural land, were within the county’s legal scope and not in conflict with Iowa Code 335.2 which prohibits counties from regulating agriculture.
The board of supervisors passed the UDO, 3-2, in December with a host of recommendations from the Johnson County Planning and Zoning (P&Z) Commission included in the final draft. The UDO took effect on Jan. 15.
In response, Chairman of the State Government Committee Representative Bobby Kaufmann (R-73) introduced House Study Bill (HSB) 632 on Feb. 5 to amend Section 335.2 to prohibit implementation of portions of the UDO. Senator Jeff Edler (R-36) introduced its companion bill SSB3120 in the Senate on Feb. 13. The final bills, SF2264 and SF2358, passed in the Senate on a bipartisan vote and were to be signed by Governor Kim Reynolds on Tuesday, March 10. The bills took effect immediately upon her signature.
SF2264 (successor to SSB3120) and SF2358 specifically prohibits a county from requiring an application, approval or a fee for applying for the agricultural exemption, a direct shot at the UDO, which proposed to make new applicants for the exemption prove their intention to farm, show financial viability and demonstrate experience and/or knowledge in farming. The motive was said to protect farmland from developers who would claim the exemption from the county building code and zoning regulations, and instead grow a small cluster of houses.
SF2264 also reorganizes the P&Z Commission by requiring all members to live within the area regulated by the commission, unincorporated and rural areas only. The requirement necessitates the replacement of Dave Parsons, who lives in Iowa City, and Thomas Swierczewski, who lives in Solon. Parsons has been on P&Z since January 2018 while Swierczewski just joined the Commission in January. The board of supervisors has up to one year from the enactment of the bill to appoint new members who meet the new eligibility requirements.
SF 2358 prohibits counties from requiring a conditional use permit, special use permit, special exception or a variance for “agricultural experiences” on property where the primary use is agricultural production, and is in response to efforts to regulate agricultural tourism in Johnson County.
SF2264 passed 37-11 in the senate with Kevin Kinney (D-39) voting for it, while Joe Bolkcom (D-43) opposed. Senator Zach Wahls was absent.
SF2358 passed, 45-3, with Kinney in favor, Bolkcom opposed and Wahls absent.
Chairman of the Johnson County Board of Supervisors Rod Sullivan said, “I am disappointed that this legislation passed. I am even more disappointed that the legislators who voted for it never spoke to any supervisors about the bill. Johnson County has been working very hard to preserve farmland and prevent urban sprawl. This legislation makes that a lot harder. There will be unintended consequences, no doubt.”
Sullivan said he did not anticipate any legal challenges to the legislation, adding, “But I am just one supervisor in one county.”