• Roger Sims, Journal Staff

County planners air concerns about zoning changes

Updated: Jul 8

MOUND CITY – Members of the Linn County Planning and Zoning Commission met on Monday, June 20, with county commissioners to discuss a couple of issues: zoning regulations in regard to the comprehensive plan and state legislation that gave the county little control over the proliferation of towers.

Richard Morrell, chair of the planning commission, told commissioners that board had been handed a draft copy of the comprehensive plan at its meeting on Tuesday, June 14. However, he said that for the planning commission, the heart of comprehensive plan is the zoning regulations, and there were none included in the plan.

Commissioner Rick James said that the county didn’t budget for a revision of the zoning regulations, however, members of the planning committee said they received a draft of updated regulations from Jennifer Reinhart with the Institute for Building Technology and Safety’s (IBTS) Kansas City, Mo., office. IBTS is the company hired to develop the comprehensive plan.

Dave Berglund, a long-time member of the county planning commission who has been on the board through three upgrades of the county’s comprehensive plan over the course of more than 20 years, said that commission needed help in determining zoning regulations that would guide the county in the future.

He said he had personally been approached by a company that develops solar farms asking to lease some of his farm ground. “I have a contract lying on my kitchen table right now, but I’m not going to sign it,” he said.

However, another landowner likely will and the county needs to have someone with expertise guide the planning commission as its members weigh the possibility, Berglund said. In the past, Linn County has gone to Miami County and copied its zoning regulations.

But now Linn County needs some professional guidance, he said. He noted that the county had placed a moratorium on siting wind turbines within its borders, but it needs to better prepare on how it will handle that development.

“We need guidance, and we need to do it right,” Berglund said.

Charlene Sims, also a long-time member of the planning commission, told commissioners she liked a phrase that Paul Porter, vice chair of the commission used: “The comprehensive plan is our mission statement, and the zoning regulations are our policy.”

“We can’t just approve the comprehensive plan without doing the zoning regulations at the same time, because we may have to change something in the comprehensive plan if we don’t,” she pointed out.

She told commissioners there had been some misunderstanding and miscommunication about the need for the comprehensive plan from the beginning.

State statute allows county and city planning commissions to develop comprehensive plans to guide the future growth of the county.

County Counselor Gary Thompson pointed out that Reinhart from IBTS had drafted some changes in the county’s zoning regulations.

Jessica Hightower, county economic development director who has overseen the update of the comprehensive plan, said IBTS has also developed a draft land-use map for the county as well.

Those revised regulations are expected to be discussed in a meeting of the planning commission on Thursday. That commission will also meet with Reinhart of IBTS the following Tuesday to try to hammer out what changes, if any, are needed in the regulations.

Fred Kautt, another planning commission member, pointed out that when the county updated the comprehensive plan in 2006, a company from Nebraska came in to help the commission with questions about zoning regulations, suggesting that was the kind of help that was needed.

James suggested the planning commission take the time it needed to make sure the comprehensive plan and the zoning regulations were in agreement, adding another three weeks to the timetable.

In a related matter, Sims talked to the commission about an application to install a cell phone tower near the Linn County Industrial Park on the southeast corner of La Cygne. She said the commission tabled the motion because the company applying for the permit, Skyward Land Services of Overland Park, did not present a conceptual plan that would show the exact location of the tower on the plot.

She pointed out that a statute passed by the Kansas Legislature, prevented the county from making decisions about how towers could be placed.

Under this statute, companies have been able to build communications towers where such towers already exist.

Berglund pointed out that earlier this year, the planning commission and the county commissioners approved building two new towers, one near Pleasanton and the other by the U.S. Highway 69 and Kansas Highway 152 interchange, that were both within less than 1,000 yards away from towers that were already being used.

Sims told commissioners that the attorney for that company told the planning commission that it had little choice but to approve the two towers.

Thompson said that he advised the planning commission if it didn’t approve the two new towers, it could open the county up to a lawsuit. The commission approved the new towers on a narrow 5-4 vote, which sent the application to the county commission, which then gave final approval.

Sims asked the commissioners what happened to local control when legislators receive donations from AT&T and decide that local governments no longer have a choice where towers go.

She also asked what happens in the future when other decisions are taken away from the county. When legislators receive donations from Evergy who wants to build wind generators or put in solar farms, she asked, will they take that decision away from counties also?

Mike White, another planning commission member, suggested that even though the state statute required it, the county should consider not approving further requests to build towers where there would be a duplication. He also suggested that the county should defend the decision not to grant a permit in court if pressed.

James asked Sims if she had contact area legislators about the issue. She pointed out they had voted for the measure.

Thompson told the planning commission that if they wanted to set up a test case like that, they should get with him early to do some background preparation.

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