Zoning, planning rules benefit county property owners

New zoning rules are being released that redefine how and where you can live in Marion County.

They also represent sometimes conflicting philosophies on how Marion County ought to be developed, and what kind of place it will be in the future.

David Brazil, planning and zoning director, says one of the uplifting things about the rule changes is that it has been one of the better illustrations of democracy in action he has seen.

Brazil said the public has had a chance to have inputs into the process at various hearings. The final determinations are made by the Board of Commissioners elected by that public, and formulating the regulations is the responsibility of an all-volunteer Marion County Planning and Zoning Commission appointed by the commissioners.

Brazil holds an unusual official office compared to many places. In addition to being Marion County’s planning and zoning director, he is its environmental health director and transfer station manager.

This gives him a unique position in offices that have overlapping responsibilities-from land use to sanitation responsibilities for water and sewage development on the land to disposal of solid waste.

Brazil, along with other persons on the Planning Commission, said he feels some responsibility for continuing the open lands and agricultural heritage of independent farmers into the future.

Personally, he said, he thinks preserving farmers and farm lands is at a stage of necessity comparable to what preservation of soil was in the 1930s.

Without some help, the traditional economy and heritage could be lost before chances to revitalize it come in the future.

Brazil also has received training, with a background in biology, in a time in the United States when land preservation and restrictions in land use are coming to the forefront for the general public good, overriding personal wishes and profit-making.

At the same time, he works for county commissioners Dan Holub, Randy Dallke and Bob Hein, who say they want property owners to enjoy the personal freedom to build improvements wherever they want with as few hindrances as possible.

Holub, in particular, said the efforts represent the rights of the individual to own property and do with it what he wants.

Brazil said his job, and what he does, is to help show the county commissioners and the zoning board members they appoint all the alternatives, and then to carry through on what they want without regard to his own opinions.

He said the first step in any county zoning is to have a county plan, which Marion County does. Brazil said the actions of a planning commission in developing such a plan and all future zoning regulations developed from it, are guided by state statutes.

Not only does the plan guide future county actions, it also can protect it in legal actions. For example, Brazil said, a judge may find a decision or regulation more reasonable if it falls within the county’s comprehensive plan.

Two forward-looking tools used within the Marion County comprehensive plan are proving so useful that other counties are coming here for advice on how to implement them, Brazil said.

The first of these is LESA, the “Land Evaluation and Site Assessment” plan that the Zoning Commission is using to determine whether land can be used for rural residential use, or if it is of such food-production value that it ought to remain for agricultural use.

Brazil said LESA uses factors such as soil type and slope in its evaluation.

The other tool recognized as forward looking by other counties is an overlay system used to determine areas of the county suitable for wind-farm development. Brazil said it indexes things such as proximity of cross-country lines, population density and average wind speeds.

Such systems and zoning under the plan have been the result of long hours of work by the volunteers who serve on the Planning Commission, Brazil said. These members not only do all of the advance planning, they serve as the board for making decisions on building permits or requests for zoning variances.

Brazil said the Planning and Zoning Commission members also serve as the appeals board when members of the public want decisions changed. Their actions may be approved, changed or rejected by the county commissioners. Brazil said the elected commissioners have final authority.

When the new county commission began its term in January 2005 with two new members, Holub and Dallke, one of its announced intentions was to make rules easier in order to encourage more rural residential housing in the county.

Through many meetings, communications and directives, Brazil and the Planning Commission proceeded to change and develop regulations to help this happen.

One of the first changes was to reduce the acreage required for building a new dwelling from 40 acres to five acres split from 40 or more acres, Brazil said.

Under discussion is whether to make the density requirement over the land one five-acre residence within each 40 acres, or 16 five-acre rural residences per 640-acre section.

Recently, commissioners said they may be willing to reduce the density from 16 per section to 12.

The acreage approved for rural housing by commissioners are also subject to a road-improvement assessment. There is no assessment on highly maintained rural secondary roads.

For lots situated on gravel, non-RS roads, Brazil said the fee is $500. For lots located along dirt, non-RS roads, he said the assessment is $500 plus an additional $500 for each quarter mile of road to be graveled, not to exceed $3,000.

The commissioners may deny a lot split if the estimated costs of road improvements significantly exceeds the assessment.

A major goal of the county commission has been to see rural residences built on former farmsteads, the familiar “abandoned farms” of the county. The new regulation about this allows a rural residential lot down to three acres if a residential structure existed as of Nov. 1, 2004, or if Brazil determines there has been no subsequent nonresidential use of the property that comprises the proposed lot.

Brazil said new regulations allow a guest house for a family’s guests or servants quarters for a farm hand on a farmstead if utilities go through the same meters.

Rural residential lots down to one acre may be allowed within a city’s zone of influence with water and sewage hookups or the city’s approval under new rules.

Brazil said zoning rule changes or plan changes are made under consultation with Jim Kaup, an attorney from Topeka.

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