County panel set to review latest draft

County panel set to review latest draft

They've got a lot of people to please.

Farmers who want to preserve large tracts of land for growing corn and soybeans, farmers who want to retain the right to sell their land to developers, residents who live in rural subdivisions, developers, Realtors, environmentalists, urban planners. And who can forget about the private property rights advocates.

More than a year after Champaign County residents first reviewed zoning ordinance changes proposed for rural districts, the county appears to be inching closer to presenting another draft to the public.

At 7 p.m. Nov. 2, the Champaign County Board's Environment and Land Use Committee will hold a study session to review the most recent draft and direct staff on whether or not to release it to the public for review. Then, at the group's regular Nov. 14 meeting, they could vote on the draft's release.

After that, public hearings will be held (possibly in January) and eventually the county board will vote on the new zoning amendments. That may be in March.

"It's a fascinating and complicated process, but I believe staff and members of the Environment and Land Use Committee are trying to create a zoning ordinance that's updated, modern and represents the will of the county," said committee co-chair Nancy Greenwalt of Champaign.

It's been a long time coming. For years, county board members and staff have been working on rewriting zoning for the county's agricultural districts (generally areas 1.5 miles beyond a municipality's border).

"It came down to a crisis a few months ago when we started getting planning commissions for townships and municipalities involved. They were filing protests on various proposed changes and state law provides if a township or municipality files a complaint, then it requires three-quarters of the members of (county) board to pass that over their objection," said Ralph Langenheim of Urbana, chair of the Environment and Land Use Committee.

And that requirement has greatly impeded any progress, he said.

"The constituency is so divided," Langenheim added. "It's going to be a long process."

After proposed text and map amendments to the rural districts were scrapped last fall, a bipartisan ad hoc committee was assembled, and came up with revised suggestions. After that, the Environment and Land Use Committee convened a few times to consider their suggestions, as well as staff's recommendations.

"It's a shameful situation it's dragged on this long," said Hal Barnhart, who sat on the ad hoc committee and is chair of the Champaign County Farm Bureau's Land Use Committee. "It's like fiddling around while Rome burns," Barnhart said. "While all this is going on we've suburbanized the stream corridors."

The current draft includes some restriction on by-right development – when a landowner has the right to build without applying for a permit and going through the zoning board process, Langenheim said. This includes a restriction on development in areas classified as best prime farmland. In those areas, one house or lot will be allowed per 40 acres, Greenwalt said.

"Champaign County, as they say, has some of the best farmland in the world, and it's a shame to lose that to unplanned development," she said.

Also proposed is the establishment of a minimal conservation zone along wooded portions of the county's main waterways, Langenheim said.

Last year, some business groups and property rights advocates objected to the conservation buffers. And some environmentalists expressed concerns that the buffer zone did not provide enough protection for environmentally sensitive areas. Members do want to preserve conservation areas, but they are not proposing to ban development there, Greenwalt said. It's not that you couldn't build a house or barn in a natural area, Greenwalt explained, but how would that building or the position of that building affect the natural area?

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