By LeAnn R. Ralph
TOWN OF FOREST — On a vote of 130 to 108, residents in the Town of Forest have approved zoning authority for the Forest Town Board.
Electors in the township held a special town meeting December 16 to vote on the question of whether the town board’s zoning authority should be rescinded.
At a special town meeting in October of 2011, township residents approved zoning authority for the town board but left it up to board members to decide whether Forest should write its own zoning ordinance or adopt county zoning, which could have been accomplished in a matter of months rather than years.
The Forest Town Board subsequently decided that the township should hire a consultant to assist in writing a zoning ordinance for Forest.
At the December 16 meeting, Rick Steinberger, town supervisor and chair of the plan commission, said he had been hearing rumors that the township’s zoning code was not good for farmers.
The proposed zoning code sets a minimum lot size of five acres and permits four residential lots per 40-acre parcel and is trying to preserve larger tracts of land, he said.
The state has a Right-to-Farm law that protects existing farms, Steinberger said.
The Forest Plan Commission, however, proposed amending the township’s Smart Growth Comprehensive Land Use Plan to remove references to supporting the right to farm along with references to supporting renewable energy.
The plan commission held a public hearing on the proposed changes November 21.
According to state law, a municipality’s zoning ordinances must be consistent with the comprehensive plan.
Wisconsin’s right to farm law is state statute 823.08.
The introduction to the law indicates that local units of government, through their zoning power, can mitigate much of the conflict between farmers and other landowners.
“The legislature therefore deems it in the best interest of the state to establish limits on the remedies available in those conflicts which reach the judicial system. The legislature further asserts its belief that local units of government, through the exercise of their zoning power, can best prevent such conflicts from arising in the future, and the legislature urges local units of government to use their zoning power accordingly.”
In other words, the state legislature is urging local units of government not to rely on state law alone to assure the right to farm but that local governments should also use their zoning power to ensure the right to farm.
One gentleman in the audience wondered how zoning districts could be changed, such as changing agricultural into agricultural-residential.
The landowner would have to apply for a zoning district change, and then the township’s zoning administrator would refer it to the plan commission, Steinberger said.
The plan commission would then make a recommendation to the town board, and the town board would have to approve the zoning change. After that, the proposed zoning change would have to go to St. Croix County for review and approval, he said.
Lee Tellijohn, a member of the plan commission, said the proposed zoning code makes it more difficult for commercial enterprises to locate in Forest.
John Strom, town resident, said the proposed zoning code allows township residents the opportunity to find out what the impact of the commercial or industrial operation would be on the town.
Zoning has been a two-year process that has been “agonizingly slow,” he said.
“Without zoning, Forest will continue to be attacked by corporate interests,” Strom said.
Strom also said he thought too much was being made out of the $400,000 that the town board has spent on attorneys’ fees and expert witnesses to fight against the wind turbine project and that people should consider lost property values could total $400,000.
Steve Helgeson, township resident, wondered about the definitions for major and minor home occupations.
Jaime Junker, town chair, said that the proposed zoning code is not trying to prevent minor home occupations.
Mark Tellijohn, township resident, noted that the proposed zoning code says that minor home occupations are not allowed outside of the residence.
If someone wants to use their garage to groom dogs or build picnic tables or put together decorative wreaths, they cannot do it under the proposed zoning, he said.
In addition, township residents would only be able to sell products by taking telephone orders and could not sell items off the shelf because then it would be considered a store, Tellijohn said.
The proposed zoning rules are “for a city. They’re not for out here,” he said, adding that the Town of Forest should slow down and “get it right.”
Tellijohn noted that under the proposed zoning code, when it comes time for him to install solar panels for his farming operation, “I will have to fight you with a lawyer.”
Junker took an opportunity to speak as an elector of the township and said that a letter had been mailed to town residents recently that said the town board has consistently lied and has refused to follow state statutes and cannot be trusted.
Who wrote the letter? Junker asked the crowd.
Out of the more than 200 people in the town hall, no one spoke up.
Several people in the crowd did say, however, that they thought Junker’s references to a letter were not consistent with the purpose of the town meeting to consider whether the Forest Town Board should retain its zoning authority.
Junker went on to say that a certain number of township residents were only interested in stopping zoning “because it matters to the wind application.”
Many people in the crowd responded with shouts of “no,” indicating they were of the opinion that Junker’s statement was not true.
Todd Ostberg, a member of the plan commission, said three items in the proposed zoning code would trigger a public hearing: a rezone; variances; and conditional use permits.
He also noted that property owners within one mile of the property in question would receive notification of a request for a rezone, a variance or a conditional use permit.
A rumor has been circulating that the zoning code has been designed to favor residential development, Ostberg said.
Several people in the crowd said they were not against zoning, per se, but that they wanted to make sure the zoning code that is adopted is “right” for the Town of Forest.
People who attended the meeting were required to give their names and have them checked against the township’s official election roster before they were given ballots to vote.
The special town meeting lasted nearly two-and-a-half hours by the time the votes were tallied and the official vote count was approved of 130 in favor of the town board retaining zoning authority to 108 who wanted to rescind the town board’s zoning authority.
St. Croix County must approve the Town of Forest’s proposed zoning code before it can go into effect.
A two-year moratorium on development in the township expires on December 29.
The St. Croix County Development Committee will hold a public hearing to consider the Town of Forest Adopting Town Zoning Ordinance and Zoning Map. The hearing will be Thursday, December 19 at 6 p.m. at the Hudson Government Center’s County Board Room, 1101 Carmichael Road.