County to change land use regulations

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By Joel Stevens, Associate Editor

    The Mills County Board of Supervisors is proposing a change to its zoning ordinance that would open up more of the county to what it calls “resource extraction” in the county’s unincorporated areas.

    In a 90-minute public hearing at the Mills County Courthouse last week, the supervisors had the third reading of Ordinance No. 12-01. The new ordinance would allow minerals and, namely dirt, to be extracted from those areas designated as agricultural and agricultural residential with a special use permit granted by the Mills County Board of Adjustment. The county’s unincorporated agriculture and agriculture residential land represents approximately 400 square miles, covering two-thirds of the eastern portion of the county and low lands west of Interstate 29. Resource extraction will not be allowed in  the Loess Hills or any incorporated areas or villages.
    The county’s current ordinance allows resource extraction only in county areas zones as industrial.
    The county’s reversal on its ordinance came at the request of the Mills County Zoning Board, which held several weeks of public meetings on the proposed changes.
    The new ordinance would grant landowners the right to remove and haul dirt from permitted areas only first after having obtained a special use permit granted by the five-member board of adjustment. Applicants must submit a grading plan, a precise measurement of dirt being extracted, the route trucks would travel to and from the site and a proposed end-use for the existing site before neighbors of the project are informed and a public hearing held.
    Kevin Mayberry, Mills County’s engineer, said the new ordinance isn’t really the land grab it might sound. Resource extraction isn’t possible in all 400 square miles of the county, he said, because not all county roads and bridges accessing sites are suitable for fully loaded trucks to travel over them.
    “Any site that would come to me for a permit would have to show their haul route and if there’s a road or bridge that can’t handle that truck load, then it’s not a viable site and I won’t approve it,” Mayberry said. “I think our infrastructure itself will interact and restrict the available areas. In one sense it’s easy to say its opened up all this area (to extraction) but the practically of that doesn’t really exist.”
    Critics of the new ordnance have called in to question the potential proliferation of dirt “borrow sites” popping up all over the county. Supporters have sited the potential for economic development along the Highway 34 corridor.
    Marjean Sargent and her husband own 10 acres of land near Malvern. Everyday they drive past a dirt “borrow site” along the Silver Creek owned by Corey Leick, owner of a local construction and landscaping company.  Since last winner Leick has been hauling dirt from that site to various sites within and outside the county. Sargent said the Silver Creek site is an eyesore she’d rather not see more of in the county.
    Leick, who was at Tuesday’s meeting said, the “majority” of the dirt he has pulled from his land has gone for Mills County projects and his long-term plan for that Silver Creek parcel is to farm it after the top soil is re-applied.
    “I know it’s not as pretty as it once was driving across Highway 34 but someday that land will be better,” he said.
    Leick went on to say his business employs nearly 40 people, pays $55,000 a month in fuel costs and has contributed more $125,00 in registrations and sales tax in the last year.
    “The county is greatly benefitting from this operation,” said Leick.
    Sargent, who said she isn’t opposing economic development in the county, does have concerns about the Silver Creek dirt borrow beyond it being an eyesore.
    “I think part of it is a safety issue,” Sargent said. “Those trucks pull out and head up the hill west and they rarely move into the slow lane. But more importantly, Highway 34 IS our county. People, if they aren’t stopping, are going right down Highway 34, and to see that, it tears my heart up, especially right there by a creek.”
    She fears opening up more of the county for  resource extraction is a slippery slope rife with potential problems for the county and land owners.
    “Once you unlock that door to allow it anywhere in the county, even though there may be restrictions on the person actually selling or hauling that dirt, there’s always ways around it,” she said.
    Mayberry said the fact the county is changing the ordinance now isn’t an indicator the original ordinance was flawed.
    “It (the zoning ordinance) is a very well written, comprehensive document and as good as it is there isn’t a person involved with it that didn’t believe it was a perfect document and we had to put it behind glass and never touch it,” he said. “It’s a dynamic document. And we have made changes to the document and the use matrix itself. That’s what I see this as. It’s just not as simple as putting an ‘S’ (permitted by special use permit) in the Ag and Ag residential boxes. You try and figure out all the possible uses in zoning you just can’t think over everything.”
    Sargent, for one, would like to see the county strike more of a balance between economic development and land stewardship in the existing zoning plan.
    “I’m on the tourism board,” she said. “We try very had to bring people into Mills County, not just for tourism, for businesses too, it’s good for everyone. But we also bought our little slice of paradise here and we don’t want to see it torn up.”
    Mayberry doesn’t disagree. He said balance is indeed the goal but just how attainable it is for both of those sides remains unclear.
    “I think that (criticism) is a valid concern but to the extent some were advocating for today is a little overdone,” he said. “It could easily be looked  at as a relaxation of the present ordinance which causes some people some concern.
    “On the other hand, just as many people want to see less restriction. In that case, this is a positive to them. I don’t think there’s anyway to make everybody happy so we think this is what is best for Mills County.”