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Paynesville Press - October 11, 2006

County updating its comprehensive plan

By Michael Jacobson

Stearns County, which is looking at updating its comprehensive plan, conducted one of three initial public information meetings in Paynesville last week.

County consultants called the comprehensive plan "just a document (that) sets policy" but added that "zoning and other regulations should be consistent with it."

Stearns County last updated its comprehensive plan in 1998. Since then, however, the county has already changed dramatically, the consultant continue, which along with more information - including the 2000 census - prompted the county to update its plan.

The county's first comprehensive plan was created in 1970, when Stearns County had a population of 80,000, said Don Adams, director of Stearns County Environmental Services. In that plan, the top three goals were the preservation of farmland, sustainable development, and a clear distinction between urban and rural areas, which are similar to the goals of the 1998 plan, according to Adams.

A county-wide zoning ordinance was enacted in Stearns County in 2000. Stearns County now has a population of 140,000, added Adams. Last Thursday's meeting consisted of an open house for 90 minutes and then a public presentation and meeting for 90 minutes.

At the meeting, participants (mostly representatives of local township governments) broke into small groups to discuss their views of the three most important issues facing the county. Then they grouped their topics within their group and ranked them again. Issues identified included: protecting agriculture lands, transportation, water quality, managed growth, and economic development.

Information that will be used to update the comprehensive plan includes: native plants, farmland, bedrock, watersheds, biological significance, present use, present zoning, open space (for public use), nitrogen/nitrates, water resources, restricted parcels, shoreland development, and feedlots.

Other factors that the county consultants presented included the continuing importance of agriculture to the county and the current location of jobs in the county.

In 2002, $350 million in ag products were produced in Stearns County, with the majority resulting from animal agriculture (48 percent dairy, 28 percent poultry, and 17 percent beef). At the time, Stearns ranked first in the state in dairy production and in cattle numbers and second in poultry production.

St. Cloud is the most dense area for jobs in the county (with regional centers nearby in Willmar and Alexandria). Other significant job centers in the county are Albany, Cold Spring, Melrose, Paynesville, and Sauk Centre.

This is the second meeting in Paynesville about the comprehensive plan update with representatives from five townships (Eden Lake, Farming, Munson, Paynes-ville, and Wakefield) meeting in Paynesville in August. These townships, seeing some of the largest rural growth in the county, include the cities of Cold Spring, Eden Valley, Paynesville, Richmond, Rockville, and Roscoe.

The comprehensive plan will address land use, transportation, economic development, natural resources, parks/ recreation, and county facilities.

A draft of the comprehensive plan will hopefully be ready for another set of meetings with township representatives and another series of public open houses and meetings next spring. Public hearings about the final updated comprehensive plan are tentatively scheduled for next summer (May or June 2007).

Current Zoning
It remains to see what recommendations (if any) the updated comprehensive plan will make about zoning, but zoning restrictions are a tool for governments to use to protect (such as agriculture) or to encourage.

Current zoning categories are: residential, transitional (between residential and agriculture), and agriculture. The zoning category is always given with a lot size, ranging from one acre in size in dense residential developments to 160 acres in agriculture areas.

For example, R-10 means residential zoning and that a property can be divided into residential lots based on the size of the property divided by 10; a 120-acre property would yield 12 lots in R-10.

On the other hand, A-40 allows only one house on a 40-acre parcel, which means a 120-acre property could only be divided into three lots.

Current zoning of Stearns County townships in the Paynesville area:

*Crow River Township: All zoning is A-40. Currently, land use in the township is all agricultural except for a few Wildlife Management Areas.

*Eden Lake Township: All zoning is A-40 except around the various lakes in the township.

*Lake Henry Township: All zoning is A-80 except the city of Lake Henry. Currently, land use in the township is all agricultural except for a few commercial parcels.

*Munson Township: Zoning in the western half, near Roscoe, is mainly A-80, with A-40 zoning north of Richmond. South of Highway 23 near Big Lake and around the Chain of Lakes, zoning is R-1 to R-5. Currently, land use in the township follows the zoning with some commercial properties (gravel pits) along Highway 23.

*Paynesville Township: Zoning is A-40 north of the Crow River, with T-20 (a transitional zoning) between the ag zoning and residential zoning (R-1 to R-5) south of Highway 23 and Highway 55 and around Rice Lake and Lake Koronis.

*St. Martin Township: All zoning is A-40 and A-80 except the city of St. Martin. Currently, land use in the township is all agricultural except for a few commercial parcels.

*Spring Hill Township: All zoning is A-160 except the city of Spring Hill. Currently, land use in the township is all agricultural except for a few commercial parcels.

*Zion Township: All zoning is A-80. Currently, land use in the township is all agricultural except for one commercial parcel and one recreational parcel.

Stearns County Survey
Conducted in July and August by a professional firm that interviewed 500 county residents by telephone, Stearns County has completed a new survey to try and determine likes and dislikes, wants and desires about life in the county.

Quality of life: 89 percent said good or excellent.

Like most about the county: more than a dozen responses led by rural/open space (25 percent), small town (11 percent), location (10 percent), people (10 percent), safe (7 percent), family/friends (6 percent), and nature/environment (5 percent).

Most serious issue facing county: drugs (19 percent); crime (19 percent); too much growth (16 percent). Land development in county: about right (49 percent); too much (45 percent).

Doing enough to protect environment in the county: about right (54 percent); too little (39 percent).

Environmental protection: county should have on-going program to purchase and protect land (92 percent agree); scenic landscapes and rural character are important to county (97 percent agree); taking steps now to protect natural areas will preserve quality of life (97 percent agree); concerned that overdevelopment and urban sprawl will bring traffic congestion and growth issues to county (89 percent); to preserve rural lifestyle and agriculture economy dependent on slowing urban sprawl and natural areas (94 percent agree).

County has enough open spaces/ natural areas: 61 percent agree; 27 percent disagree.

Would accept a tax increase for property acquisition/preservation: 30 percent said no; 19 percent said OK to $1 per month increase; 35 percent said OK to $2 increase; 15 percent unsure.

County parks fulfilling mission: 67 percent good or excellent; 24 percent fair or poor.

Convenient county trails: 72 percent said yes; 14 percent said no.

Albany-Brooten trail corridor: 54 percent said yes to tax for trail; 68 percent said no to tax for ATV use.

Extend Wobegon Trail from St. Joe through Waite Park to downtown St. Cloud: 54 percent said yes; 39 percent said no.

Tax increase for parks and trails: 33 percent said nothing; 20 percent said $1 per month; 15 percent said $2; 20 percent said at least $3.

Alcohol use in county parks: 75 percent oppose; 20 percent support.

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