MONTICELLO — Should Piatt County reduce the 20-acre minimum required for home-building on agricultural land? Voters will get a chance to chime in on this issue through an April 9 advisory referendum. The question was placed on the ballot by the Piatt County Board.
In effect since 2004, supporters say the 20-acre minimum preserves valuable farmland by requiring formal approval of rural subdivisions, mainly by discouraging the sale of small lots to individual builders. It also paves the way for more planned growth — which 20-acre supporters say is one of the main reasons for zoning in the first place.
On the other side are county board members who see it as the landowners' right to do what they want on their property.
One of those is Mike Wileaver, who came on the board two years after the minimum was approved.
"I feel that anyone that owns property or land owns an asset, and you need to have as much control over your assets as you can," Wileaver said.
The product of a two-year study by a special nine-member committee, the 20-acre minimum has been challenged several times since its adoption. The most recent began last summer, with sparse home-building given as a reason for reducing the minimum rural lot size to at least 5 acres.
But Jim Reed, a DeLand-area farmer and member of the committee that recommended the increased lot size, said it has not hurt home sales, and he has statistics he claims prove that point.
Comparing home-building permits to neighboring DeWitt County, he said Piatt County permit requests totaled 26 in 2008 (21 in DeWitt), followed by years of 16 (19 in DeWitt), 31 (15) and 13 (13). DeWitt County's minimum rural lot size is 5 acres.
"DeWitt County has and has always had the 5-acre rule. So how has the 20-acres disaffected Piatt? The trend is essentially identical despite the lot size," Reed said.
But county board Chairman John Lyons of Atwood still feels a less-restrictive limit would increase home building.
"A lot of people like to build houses in the country in the woods, and if you build on a 2- to 3-acre lot it helps the county, the school districts and townships," Lyons said, adding that homes generate thousands of dollars more in tax revenue than if the same ground is farmed.
Homes as investments
In a more mobile society, there has been a shift to less multigenerational homesteads in rural areas. Reed said the average stay in a home is down to six years in this country.
"Before 2002, people built houses to live in. At that point they started building them as investments," added Reed. For that reason, he points to the need for regulation to make sure people building an expensive dream house do not see their property values drop from a neighbor with smaller aspirations.
"We want to avoid this conflict of one guy building a house, and then without any public hearing, prior notification, someone going across the road or right next to him, or on both sides of him or behind him and doing something that is totally contrary to what he did and ruining his investment," he said.
Reed also points to less-regulated areas of the county that result in multiple entrances onto county roads, which can make it more difficult to perform roadwork, snow removal and road maintenance.
Wileaver would prefer a 3-acre minimum, but makes it clear "I am not anti-zoning." He sees a process that could reduce the 20-acre size and avoid the multiple entrance issue.
"I'm very willing, and the board is very willing to work with the (Piatt County) Farm Bureau and the road commissioners and have an intelligent discussion on this and work it out," said Wileaver.
But to Reed, the issue has already been worked out.
"We did the long-term study from '02 to '04. We did a total group review of it in '05, and again the recommendation was to keep it where it was. Since the '04 group, we had the Comprehensive Land Use Study Group, which reviewed the 1970 comprehensive plan," commented Reed.
Farm Bureau chimes in
The Farm Bureau has come out in favor of keeping the 20-acre lot size minimum, pointing out there are currently about 50 rural residences already for sale in the county that are under that size.
Their goals include managed growth and making sure some of the most valuable farmland in the world is used mostly to grow crops.
"We're blessed with some of the best soils in the world, and with the demand for food growing, we're going to need all this productive farmland to feed people," said Farm Bureau Board President Terry Lieb, who also feels the "rural landscape" is an asset to the county.
But to Wileaver, it comes back to the issue of an individual landowner's rights. He wants a farmer to be able to sell off a few acres if he needs the income to purchase equipment.
"It should be a landowner's option to sell, and there shouldn't be such a burden," he said.
Even with the 20-acre minimum, landowners are able to divide existing homes from adjacent acreage they own, in case they desire to sell the home but keep the surrounding farmland. For homes in existence prior to 2002, single-dwelling tracts of 1 acre can be split off, and for those homes built prior to Sept. 14, 2010, 2 to 5 acres with the house can be platted separately.
The April 9 referendum is not binding but could give the county board reason to revisit the lot size minimum.