The Mitchell Daily Republic: Laurent zoning takes another step

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

By SETH TUPPER, The Daily Republic

SALEM - The McCook County Commission proceeded Tuesday with consideration of a zoning ordinance that could allow the construction of a sign-language town.

Commissioners had been informally discussing the ordinance for four weeks. They decided Tuesday, with no opposing votes, to begin the formal consideration process. The first step is a public hearing scheduled for June 7.

The sign-language town, to be named �Laurent,� is the dream of a deaf man named Marvin Miller. His company has private financing and options to buy land at an interstate exit located three miles south of Salem.

The county�s current zoning categories do not allow for the type of mixed land-use that is necessary to build a new town. The proposed ordinance would create a zoning overlay known as a �Traditional Neighborhood Planned Development.�

The county�s planning and zoning administrator, John Knox, based the ordinance on similar measures in other states. Although he had never drafted an ordinance before, he believes this one is the best way to accommodate both the future inhabitants of Laurent and existing county residents.

�It allows you to concentrate your population in a small area, while thoroughly preserving farmland,� he said.

An opposition group, McCook Citizens United, has expressed concerns about Laurent�s potential effect on farmers. Group members say Laurent�s residents might be unaccustomed to rural life and prone to litigation over the sights, smells and other nuisances created by nearby farms.

Members of the group brought a lawyer, Todd Epp, of Sioux Falls, to Tuesday�s meeting. Epp did not speak, and the group did not make any public statements about the ordinance. The group was scheduled to conduct its own meeting at 8 p.m. Tuesday in Montrose.

If the Commission adopts the zoning ordinance, members of McCook Citizens United could refer it to a public vote by filing petition signatures from 5 percent of the county�s registered voters. If that scenario plays out, a special election will probably be conducted in July or August.

Laurent officials had hoped to begin construction by then. They have expressed frustration at the Commission�s slowness in dealing with the zoning ordinance, but Miller made no such comments at Tuesday�s meeting.

The zoning ordinance itself is a complex, 19-page document. It establishes a process of application for individuals or companies who want to build developments that do not conform to the county�s regular zoning categories.

Applicants would have to satisfy numerous requirements. Their development plan would have to �reflect the outcome and consensus� of a collaborative design process; enhance the overall quality of life in McCook County; and, �where appropriate,� be pedestrian friendly, have high-quality community design and architecture, place public spaces in prominent locations and provide for effective transportation and infrastructures including waste management and preservation of natural resources.

Developers would have to demonstrate their qualifications and their �financial capacity.� Developers also would be required to disclose individuals or corporations having a direct financial interest of 20 percent or more in the proposed development.

Laurent officials have so far refused to disclose the names of their investors, saying the investors wish to remain private. McCook Citizens United has demanded �full disclosure.�

The ordinance contains numerous other factors that county commissioners could use in deciding whether to approve or deny applications. The Commission�s decisions on individual applications could not be referred to a public vote.

Commissioner Marc Dick suggested Tuesday that the ordinance should allow only one pilot project. After the pilot project, which would likely be Laurent, he wants the ordinance to be automatically removed from the county�s zoning code. There is no such provision in the ordinance as it is currently written, but Dick said he would offer an amendment.

Dick brought a moment of levity to the meeting when he suggested that a referendum on the zoning ordinance could be scheduled for the same day as an expected referendum on an indecency ordinance. The latter ordinance was inspired by controversy over a strip club located three miles east of Salem.

If both issues go to the polls, Dick hopes the county can save money by putting each one on the same ballot.

�So you can vote on a deaf town and strippers,� Dick said.

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