A protest petition to prevent Lyon County from dramatically altering zoning laws was delivered to the Lyon County Clerk between Nov. 20 and Nov. 23 containing more than 1,000 signatures.  But county commissioners seem not to care what the petition signers think; they won’t allow public comment before tomorrow’s vote and the county attorney says the petition “has no legal effect.”

According to the organizers, the petition would prevent the Lyon County Commission from approving new zoning regulations without a unanimous vote of the commission — something currently impossible since one commissioner — Dan Slater — recently resigned citing health issues.

However, according to Lyon County Counsel Mark Goodman, by statute, a protest petition can only be filed in response to specific zoning changes — not a general revision of zoning regulations — and must be filed “within 14 days after the date of the conclusion of the public hearing pursuant to the publication notice, signed by the owners of record of 20% or more of any real property proposed to be rezoned.”

Goodman said that the petition had been submitted to Lyon County Clerk Tammy Vopat, but she had not certified it. The Sentinel attempted to reach Vopat for comment for this story but was told she was out of the office until Nov. 30, 2020.

Goodman said he would present it to the commission to look at, but the petition has “no legal effect.”

The commission has scheduled a vote on the new “form-based” regulations for Wednesday morning — the day before Thanksgiving — and petition organizer Angel Cushing said the commission is not planning to allow public comment prior to the vote.

Goodman said this is accurate. He said that the adoption of the zoning regulations does not require a public hearing and the commissioners have declined to allow comment prior to the vote.

However, the Nov. 25, 2020, agenda does have a public comment period designated directly after the vote on the zoning regulations.

The new regulations, if approved, would make significant changes to the way zoning is handled in the unincorporated parts of Lyon County. Currently, Lyon County — like most counties with zoning, and indeed, most cities — uses a system called “Euclidean Zoning,” in which how land will be used (e.g., commercial use) comes before considerations such as appearance, and separates out different types of activity — such as residential, commercial, industrial, geographically.

The new regulations, first promulgated in a joint strategic plan between the City of Emporia and Lyon County in 2017, would shift the county to “Form-Based Zoning,” which — according to Formbasedcodes.org, is “..  a land development regulation that fosters predictable built (sic) results and a high-quality public realm by using physical form (rather than separation of uses) as the organizing principle for the code. A form-based code is a regulation, not a mere guideline, adopted into city, town, or county law. A form-based code offers a powerful alternative to conventional zoning regulation.”

However, it’s a system which less than 1 percent of US cities have adopted — with reason.
According to a 2018 article in the Sarasota Observer, form-based zoning “.. while generally successful at providing more mixed-use and diversity of neighborhoods and integrated public spaces, form-based codes often hinder planning participation by the public. The process for setting the design principles of a form-based code empowers a small number of community activists and stakeholders to have great influence over the criteria established.”

The proposed new regulations specifically exempt agricultural land from zoning, but only for “parcels consisting of 40 acres or more.”

Any parcel under 40 acres would be required to prove “agricultural purpose,” something to which Cushing objects.

“I am at 39.9 acres and I produce meat goats which I sell and make more money than a lot of the cattle producers around me, but it requires an awful lot less land,” she said. “I would automatically  have to … prove I am agricultural, whereas my next-door neighbor who might have 41 acres does not.”

Moreover, where zoning decisions once rested with the county commission, the new plans would put final decisions in the hands of a zoning administrator, and landowners would be forced to appeal the decisions — at their own cost. In fact, the regulations specifically empower the administrator to “investigate any home occupation or alleged home occupation to determine whether or not such complies with these regulations,” and get a warrant to “enter upon premises to make examinations.”

Those are only some of the requirements, many of which make no sense for a rural area such as Lyon County.

Plan designed by Oregon cricket farmer

The regs are part of a joint strategic plan commissioned by both Lyon County and Emporia in 2016.

As the Sentinel reported in August of last year, the report was done by Eugene, Oregon-based Urban Collaborative which, on its website notes, “Our goal is to create places that support and sustain an area’s or an installation’s diverse missions and that are environmentally, economically, and socially sustainable.“ The firm’s main accomplishments listed on their website are redesigns of military bases for the Department of Defense and urban growth projects.

The proposal lays out the reasons why the project was undertaken, including a desire to preserve agricultural landscapes. The zoning recommendations seek to control ag land in Lyon County like it is a painting, focusing on aesthetic features such as “undeveloped land” and “consistent fencing.” There is little mentioned regarding the economics of farming and rural life.

The zoning proposal seems out of touch with the ag community, and perhaps actively attempting to undermine it. In fact, Zoe Anton, Urban Collective’s project manager for the zoning proposal, actively advocates against cattle and poultry production. Anton is vice-president of Craft Crickets, a Eugene, Oregon company that promotes and trains people to raise crickets for food. Anton notes her belief that crickets are better than cattle in an article in 2017. A Craft Crickets webpage says the company believes that cattle, poultry, and pork are polluting the environment.

All this, in the heart of Flint Hills cattle country.

And, as the Observer article noted: “Instead of sticking to agreed-upon principles, compliance would micromanage nearly every aspect, requiring lengthy public reviews and approval processes for both design and use that would change with public opinion. The fact is, allowing for continual public input on every single major construction reinvents the permit wheel for every project. Developers find themselves facing traditional restrictions AND design restrictions, and gain nothing in return.”

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