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Board votes to remove farm from primary ag district

Despite strong opposition from two supervisors, the Pierce County Board voted last week to rezone a 568-acre farm from Primary Agriculture to a zone that would allow denser residential development.

On a vote of 14-2, the county board rezoned the land

owned by Phil and Patricia Most, Town of Clifton

to General Rural Flexible 8, increasing the potential density on the land from 28 to 113 houses.

"If there's one vote cast tonight to deny a farmer his rights, it's an insult to all of us," said Oak Grove farmer Gene Schommer, speaking to the board before the vote. Schommer, who serves on the Oak Grove Town Board, said denying the Mosts' request would be "a slap in the farmer's face."

"The world changes, and you'd better change with it," said Schommer, insisting it's not right to tell a farmer he has to stay in farming.

Supervisor Maureen Ash, Town of River Falls, who spoke against the rezoning last month, said she continues to have concerns about the way the county's Land Management Plan is being used.

In a letter to another supervisor, Land Management Administrator Andy Pichotta said the county's plan stresses working with the towns to implement their policies.

"I believed that once I saw the land-use policy of Clifton, I would understand the reasoning behind their decision to re-zone the Most parcel," said Ash. But, she learned, none of the towns under county zoning have "specific, formal, written land-use policies."

"The policy is, rather, the feeling of the officials holding office at the time," said Ash. "I submit to you that this is neither management nor planning."

She said the county and its citizens spent time and $50,000 developing a plan "ultimately based on policies that cannot be examined because they are not written down and are therefore prone to inconsistencies, not only from board term to board term, but from case to case."

Ash said the Most zoning isn't as important as the greater issue it shows: there are no "consistent, written, formal policy statements and plans" for any of the towns under county zoning.

Ash suggested the board deny all future zoning requests until the towns submit written land-use policies.

Supervisor John Kucinski, Town of River Falls, said he read the county's Comprehensive Land Management Plan, discussed it with Pichotta and read it again. "It doesn't seem like this rezone is in accordance with the plan."

The plan says the county intends to protect farmers and farmland, said Kucinski. The first two goals of the plan speak to preserving prime agricultural soils for farming and preserving the low-density rural atmosphere of the towns.

Kucinski quoted extensively from the plan, citing sections about keeping the towns rural and not blurring the roles of townships and cities.

If the board rezones a 568-acre farm with 85 percent prime farm soils, what can it say to a developer who wants to rezone a large tract for housing, asked Kucinski?

"My fear is not Mr. Most, my fear is what this will lead to," said Kucinski.

"If a man of his word tells me he's not going to develop later, I believe him," he said, referring to Phil Most's insistence that he doesn't intend to turn his farm into a residential development.

"It's not what's in your heart, it's what's written and it's what you did or didn't do," said Kucinski.

The county has a strong written plan for protecting farmers and agricultural land, but rezoning the Most farm would set a precedent that developers will use to support their requests, Kucinski said.

"It seems to me in the next 10, 12 years, I'm going to be in here with a developer cramming this down my throat," he said.

Several years ago, the Mosts chose to opt into a zone and they have no inherent right to opt out now, said Kucinski.

Farmers put all their investments in their farms, said Supervisor Don Nellessen, who also farms. "(Most) is just upgrading his 401K for his retirement."

"I don't think that just because we farm, we have more rights than people who don't farm," replied Kucinski.

Years ago, Most tried to convince his neighbors to also zone their land Primary Agriculture, said Supervisor Raynee Farrell, Bay City. Most of them chose less restrictive zoning, but Most went ahead with Primary Ag.

"He tried to do the right thing, but now he's going to be penalized if he can't change it," said Farrell.

"(God) gave us the black dirt to feed people, not to build houses on," said Patricia Most. She said the family doesn't plan to sell the farm for development because her sons want to farm.

"But we still want the option, if it comes to that, to be able to sell," added her husband.

The Most farm is surrounded by developments and a golf course, and it's not going to be viable farmland, said Supervisor Mike Larson, River Falls. "You're looking at a long-range plan, and sometimes those plans get obsolete."