Archive for June, 2005

Mitchell Republic: McCook commissioners make little headway on ordinance for Laurent

Wednesday, June 15th, 2005

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

By SETH TUPPER, The Daily Republic

SALEM - Frustration mounted for people on all sides of the Laurent issue Tuesday as little was accomplished during a four-hour meeting of the McCook County Commission.

Chairman Marc Dick, who also participated in an hour-long informal discussion afterward, left the courthouse looking exhausted.

�I don�t think we got anywhere today with this meeting,� said Dick, of Bridgewater.

It�s been nearly two years since the Commission was first approached by a deaf man and his hearing mother-in-law about building a town named �Laurent� for sign-language users. Tuesday�s meeting brought nobody any closer to knowing the project�s fate.

The proposed site of the town is near an interstate exit located three miles south of Salem. Laurent officials already have financing and options to buy the land, but they lack the zoning ordinance that would allow them to begin construction.

The Commission�s inaction on the ordinance has become a source of consternation for Laurent officials. M.E. Barwacz, one of the Laurent partners, used her strongest language to date Tuesday while addressing the commissioners and members of an opposition group known as McCook Citizens United. The group has posed many questions about Laurent�s potential impact on nearby farmers and the Salem economy.

�You keep asking these same questions, and you keep getting the same answers,� Barwacz said. �� The time has come to really get up to the table and get some action here.�

For the past two months, the Commission has been mired in a word-by-word evaluation of the proposed zoning ordinance. That process continued Tuesday as commissioners, their planning and zoning administrator, and eight members of the public debated nearly every paragraph in the 17-page document.

The purpose of the ordinance is to create a new zoning overlay called a �Traditional Neighborhood Planned Development Project.� Laurent needs the overlay because the county�s zoning categories do not allow for the type of mixed land-use that is necessary to build a town from scratch.

If the overlay is approved, developers such as The Laurent Company could seek to have the overlay applied to their land. The overlay would overrule the existing zoning, therefore allowing residential, commercial, industrial and other developments on land that is zoned for only one use.

Planning and Zoning Administrator John Knox wrote the ordinance, basing it almost entirely on an existing law in Baltimore, Md. Adapting the Baltimore ordinance to McCook County has proved challenging, partly because Knox and the commissioners are admittedly inexperienced at writing zoning codes. No independent party has formally evaluated the ordinance, but Dick said Tuesday that the Commission might consider hiring a consultant.

Most of Tuesday�s discussion was devoted to the meanings of individual words in the ordinance. For example:

There was disagreement on the meaning and purpose of the word �pilot� as used in the phrase �Traditional Neighborhood Planned Development Pilot Project.� The commissioners decided, therefore, to delete every instance of the word.

The word �walkable,� as it was used in defining a traditional neighborhood, was deemed too vague. So commissioners deleted the word in several places.

The word �consensus� was hotly debated, because a section of the ordinance would require developers to conduct a master-planning session and reach a �consensus� on a final plan. Even though the word �consensus� is typically defined as an agreement reached by a group as a whole, the ordinance defines a consensus as an agreement reached by �more than 50% of the participants� in the planning process. Some commissioners said they favored a different percentage, and they all argued about who should be considered a �participant� in the planning process. No decisions were made on either matter.

Commissioners said they expect to continue reviewing the ordinance at their next meeting Tuesday. Laurent officials had hoped to begin construction late this summer, but that seems improbable now. Even if the Commission decides to adopt the ordinance, a lengthy process will follow.

First, the Planning Commission, which consists of the same five members as the County Commission, must recommend the ordinance�s adoption or rejection. Then, the County Commission must follow a mandatory process of readings and publications that could string the process out for weeks. If the ordinance is finally approved, opponents could refer it to a public vote.

And then, if voters uphold the ordinance, Laurent officials will still have to submit an application to the Commission for designation of their land as a Traditional Neighborhood Planned Development Project.

If the time for an application ever comes, it�s certain there will be at least one �no� vote. Commissioner Orville Hofer, of Bridgewater, has stated from the beginning that he wants the Laurent people to go away. When asked Tuesday for his opinion about an aspect of the Laurent plan, Hofer offered the following retort to everyone at the meeting:

�My opinion is that this is a dream. As far as I�m concerned, I don�t give a d - - - what they do.�

On a road trip for next 2 weeks

Wednesday, June 8th, 2005

I was disappointed with the Commissioner’s decision not to vote on the ordinance yesterday — they could have gone ahead and voted on it then make revisions in the first and second readings before going for the final vote. This is a delay that frustrates The Laurent Company, BUT we can understand why. The commissioners want to do this the right way, and I agree. I do not want us to “bulldoze over” the concerned neighbors — I think it is important that we address these concerns in a series of meetings so everyone can feel: 1. they have been heard, 2. there are solutions, 3. and progress made towards being good neighbors. We can’t be a good neighbor if we don’t consider their fears and concerns, and there are valid ones. Also, we understand that it is not possible to make everyone happy — but there are ways to reach a consensus.

For instance, the livestock farmers located within 1 mile of the “proposed municipality” will run into legal problems and be forced to move back their farms, despite the fact they were here first! Yet, the proposed town will be great for McCook County in terms of economic development and many other reasons. Does this mean one has to lose so the other can win?

No, we’re working towards a solution that will be win/win for everyone. One possible solution: Work with USDA and State of South Dakota to come up with finanacial assistance grants to help the local farmers in costs of relocating their livestock operations or convert into other types of farm that is more compatible being next to a town (crops, greenhouse, etc.)

That’s just one idea being floated right now. Bottom line: We’re committed to making this happen the right way. Easy? No. Fast? Heck, no! Frustrating, yeah. But that’s part of the process.

I’m taking my 4 children on a road trip to see our family in Missouri and Michigan, and we will be gone for the next 2 weeks. See you later!


Mitchell Daily Republic: Report outlines Laurent�s impact

Wednesday, June 8th, 2005

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

By HAROLD CAMPBELL, The Daily Republic

SALEM - Construction costs for the proposed sign-language town of Laurent are estimated to be at more than $200 million, while more than 120 families have already pledged to move to the town if it is built, according to a report released Tuesday.

Joe Bartmann, director of the Greater McCook Development Alliance, led McCook County commissioners Tuesday afternoon through an overview of a 29-page report outlining Laurent�s potential impact to the community.

However, commissioners Tuesday tabled discussion of a proposed zoning ordinance that could allow construction of the town until they can consider possible revisions.

According to the Development Alliance report, 120 families have already completed forms to buy or rent homes in Laurent. Close to one-quarter of those families already live in South Dakota, while 53 percent live in the Midwest. The Laurent Company, developers for the project, estimates the town could eventually grow to 2,500 residents or more.

Bartmann said developers hope to begin construction as soon as late this summer or fall. Phase I would be completed in 2008, while construction of the entire town could be completed by 2014.

The report also listed a number of potential economic impacts the town would have:

# The Laurent Company plans to invest more than $200 million during Laurent construction. The group has already spent nearly $500,000 on the project so far.

# Remaining funding will come from bank financing backed by a group of investors who wish to remain anonymous. The group has asked for no incentives or taxpayer funding.

# The group plans to recruit deaf contractors from around the country and has pledged to work with as many local contractors and suppliers as possible.

Bartmann also said the town would help business overall in the county, while it could likely become a popular destination for visitors.

�From professionals studying Laurent to international conventions and events to vacationers setting sights on the new town for signers, worldwide tourism would be a major economic engine in the new town,� he said.

He also said $200 million in construction and an increase in tax value would mean lower taxes for the entire county, especially for residents of Emery Township where the proposed town would be built.

The report also outlined the possibility that a new Laurent School District could be created by reorganizing the current McCook Central district. Reorganization would have to be approved by district residents.

�Construction of the actual Laurent school campus and buildings will be paid for with construction funding, not tax dollars,� Bartmann said. �Ongoing operation of the Laurent School District, as far as funding, would be similar to other South Dakota districts.�

Information in the report indicated the Laurent Company does not plan on annexing property. If Laurent were to expand, the report said, it would only be because adjacent landowners request annexation.

The report also said every person who builds a rural residence in McCook County is required to sign a Right to Farm Notice Covenant acknowledging the agriculture production in the area and the potential nuisance it may cause residents.

In addition, Bartmann said a suggestion has been made that new Laurent residents who are unaccustomed to rural life could attend seminars acquainting them with farming operations.

With about 20 supporters and opponents to the proposed town of Laurent looking on, commissioners, however, decided they had not had enough time to consider revisions to the ordinance. Commissioners earlier had planned to consider the ordinance on first reading Tuesday, but voted to delay further action until the Commission�s next meeting on June 21.

�We�re not even ready for first reading on this yet,� said Commissioner Mark Dick. �This is a lot to go through.�

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 zoning ordinance is a complex 19-page document that 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.

John Knox, county planning and zoning administrator, discussed the proposed zoning ordinance with commissioners. What the proposed ordinance terms a �Traditional Neighborhood Planned Development Pilot Project� would include a unique �overlay zone,� where different design standards can �overlay� various zoning districts.

Officials said Sioux Falls has a similar overlay zone downtown which crosses a number of business and commercial zones.

Commissioner Bill Smith, however, said the ordinance does not address a number of issues, such as annexation, and does not specify who should be part of a group that tries to reach a consensus on the ordinance.

�Design isn�t an issue,� he said. �We need to determine who will be participants in reaching a consensus.�

Dick said he would like to see existing farms grandfathered in to any new ordinance. McCook County State�s Attorney Roger Gerlach said ordinances often contain grandfather clauses.

Todd Epp, a Harrisburg attorney representing the McCook Citizens United group opposing the development, questioned a number of aspects to the proposed ordinance. He said he was particularly concerned about the possibility of what he called �scattershot zoning.�

�If you pluck a town in the middle of farm country, you are going to have a unique set of problems,� he said.

Marvin Miller, the Laurent Company chief operating officer, said he would be glad to be part of meetings aimed at reaching an agreement about the proposed town.

�We can all come together and discuss all the concerns until we arrive at a consensus,� he said.

If the Commission adopts the zoning ordinance, it can be referable to a public vote if 5 percent of the county�s registered voters sign a petition. However, area residents said some progress has been made in recent weeks in reaching an understanding.

�We�ve made some progress in the area of questions about building and the county�s perspective on it,� said Barney Roling, who lives about two miles south of Salem. �There is still a gray area about civil liabilities and social impact of a new town. If it has 2,500 residents, it will be the largest city in McCook County. What will that mean?�