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Rezoning For New River Housing Development Clears First Step

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Proposed Housing Development

This drawing shows a possible layout of a proposed housing development on approximately 56 acres of land that borders the Missouri River east of the boat landing area of Clay County Park. The development would contain a housing subdivision made up of 18 lots. Each lot of the proposed development, on which a residence may be built, would be between two and two-and-a-half acres in size.

The Clay County Planning Commission heard both positive and negative public input before a packed house in the Clay County Commission meeting room in the county courthouse Monday on a request that, if approved by the county commission, would allow a housing development to be built along the Missouri River.

The planning commission was asked to decide whether the zoning of a strip of land that borders the Missouri River and Clay County Park should be changed from NRC Natural Resource Conservation to RR Rural Residential.

The commission landed on the side of those in favor of the housing project, which, if developed as planned, would rezone approximately 56 acres to contain a housing subdivision made up of 18 lots. Each lot of the proposed development, on which a residence may be built, would be between two and two-and-a-half acres in size.

Clay County Zoning Administrator Drew Gunderson told the Plain Talk following the hearing that he wasn’t sure of the date that the Clay County Commission would act on the planning commission’s recommendation. It could be at a December meeting, he said.

Sarah Taggart, an agent for the owners of the river property, submitted the rezoning petition in late September to Gunderson requesting that the property’s zoning be changed to RR Rural Residential. According to the application, the property she is requesting to be rezoned is owned by the Daniel Heine Living Trust, 3213 6 Zenker Valley Road SW, Centralia, Washington, and Russell and Darcy Olson, 302 Walnut Street, Maskell, Nebraska.

In his memo to planning commission members, Gunderson noted that lots #11-18 would have separate accretion “sub-lots” giving river access while separating the “buildable” lots from the FEMA-designated floodplain.

He stated that access to the subdivision would be by 406th Ave., which is a paved county road. The site is bordered on the south by the Missouri River, on the west by Clay County Park and on the north and east by open crop ground.

Gunderson’s memo states that the land for proposed preliminary plat is currently zoned NRC Natural Resource Conservation and the zoning ordinance restricts the construction of single-family dwellings on land with that zoning by allowing three single-family dwelling building eligibilities per quarter section and requiring the lot area to be at least two acres.

Land zoned RR Rural Residential does not limit the number of single-family dwelling eligibilities and the lot area requirement is one acre, he notes in his memo. The zoning ordinance states: “The purpose of this district is to provide locations for single-family residential areas with low population densities.”

“A change of the zoning district from NRC Natural Resource Conservation to RR Rural Residential would be compatible with the similar uses in the same general area and would follow the intent of the zoning ordinance,” Gunderson wrote.

He also states that the zoning ordinance includes an aquifer protection overlay district which serves as underlying protection for areas deemed “environmentally sensitive.” These districts, he writes, have listed several conditional and prohibited uses as well as increased performance standards for a wide array of land use activities.

Gunderson notes that single-family homes or housing developments are not among those conditional or prohibited uses. Nor are there any increased performance standards for single-family homes or housing developments.

“Also, in Clay County and along the Missouri River, there are approximately 150 residences. According to Clay County records, most of those residences have been built in the last 30 years,” he states. “One residence, or even 18 potential new residences, is nothing new or unprecedented along the Missouri River.”

Gunderson wrote that the Comprehensive Plan stresses the importance of avoiding scattered and sprawl development in the rural area and that the rezoning complies with that goal by being compatible with development in the same general area and working with the Rural Area Policy Guidelines.

He recommended that the rezoning petition be approved.


Grace Freeman, who resides in Clay County, told the planning commission that she is not opposed to keeping the zoning NRC Natural Resource Conservation “which can still be built upon.”

Gunderson said that “you can only have three houses.”

“This is land that borders the national park which is a benefit not just to us in Clay County,” Freeman said. “It’s a benefit to all people – tourists coming in, people from across the state – it’s a benefit to me as a landowner. For me, not living along the river, my property value increases because of that national park status that we have on the Missouri River and for that land and all of the land that’s already zoned National Resource Conservation Land to stay in that land zoning.”

Whoever zoned that land NRC Natural Resource Conservation, she said, had “far-sighted vision. That’s land for all of us to benefit from, she said, noting that the wild and scenic river that flows by is part of the national park system and should be left as it currently is.

A representative of the National Parks Service presented a letter to the zoning commission and stated the service’s position is that the area stay natural.

“The Missouri National Recreational River flows right by,” he said. “It’s more consistent with our mandate to leave the area natural … that would be our preference.”

The Missouri National Recreational River Water Trail extends from Ft. Randall Dam near Pickstown to Sioux City, Iowa. Most of the Water Trail lies within the boundaries of the Missouri National Recreational River (MNRR), a National Park unit consisting of relatively free-flowing segments of the Missouri River.

“That particular stretch of land is incredibly important to me and my family,” said Geoffrey Gray-Lobe of Vermillion. “It’s not a stretch of land that I own privately, but I certainly own publicly, the river, and I bring my kids there regularly. It is definitely one of the most valuable things you have in this town – that stretch of river from the dam in Yankton down to Sioux City is unique. There’s nothing else like it in the world.”

Dave Struckman-Johnson, who resides on Timber Road not far from the proposed housing development, noted that the 18 houses will use the road to Clay County Park and said road maintenance issues are something for the county to consider.

He also expressed concern for Clay County Park.

“That’s a lot of traffic if they all come through that one road (near) the boat ramp at Clay County Park,” Struckman-Johnson said. “I think it’s going to change the nature of that park. It’s going to be less tranquil, less recreational … my thought is it’s not going to be that way if we have the traffic from 18 families driving back and forth past that corner.”

He also asked about erosion of the river bank along the stretch of the proposed housing development.

“What’s going to happen when that starts happening along this proposed development? Are we going to run into a situation like we had out at The Ponderosa where the people who live there are going to be screaming for whoever to fund their bank stabilization and then changing the nature of the river?” Struckman-Johnson asked.

He, too, expressed the benefits of not changing the “character” of that stretch of the Missouri River.

“This is a wild and scenic river. It’s been said that it’s the only one that exists in South Dakota,” Struckman-Johnson said. “It’s the only piece of the Missouri that exists anywhere in the entire United States that is like it is.”

Lana Svien, who has lived in Vermillion for 40 years, told planning commission members that she feared they had already decided on the petition request.

“We are just regular people and not part of the clique that I know is here,” she said. “I have been with the university for 35 years. One of the reasons why we recruit very talented academicians to come to this beautiful, beautiful area is because of the wild areas that we have here.”

Svien told planning commissioners that they need to adhere to the NRC Natural Resource Conservation zoning and not be influenced by their personal or professional relationships with the families that are requesting the zoning change.

“It is the right thing to do to adhere to the current zoning that we have,” she said, “to protect the area for all of the people who might benefit, not just those that are part of that plat.”

Susanne Skyrm, who owns property in Vermillion, told the planning commission she agrees with Svien.

She read the ordinance language that defines NRC Natural Resource Conservation: “The purpose of this district is to preserve lands best suited for natural drainage areas, public open space and agricultural uses from encroachment by incompatible uses. The area will also carry run-off water, limit permanent structures and uses of land in areas subject to flooding, protect views, preserve natural settings for wildlife habitats, add to the aesthetic quality of the community, prevent the destruction or pollution of valuable and irreplaceable natural resources and lessen the urban density.”

Skyrm added the rezoning also would not be compatible with the Clay County Comprehensive Plan which calls for the consideration of environmental restraints “including but not limited to wetlands identified on the National Wetland Inventory, floodplains identified by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and soil limitations as identified by the National Resources Conservation Service.”

The site for the proposed housing development is a wetland, she said, and is in the floodplain, citing a report that states the soil is very limited for building and for septic tank absorption of liquid waste.

Skyrm told the planning commission it is incumbent upon them to consider private interests versus public interests.

“When conflicts arise between private and public interests, you folks are the ones that should be strongly considering the public interest,” she said. “Public interest in this case involves protecting the national recreational river, Clay County Park, the open spaces and the wildlife habitat of Clay County.”

Harry Freeman, a resident of Clay County, told commissioners he often boats along that stretch of river.

“I really see Clay County Park as the face of the (national park) for most of the people in Clay County who come here,” he said. “One of the things I really like to do is walk out on the dock with people who haven’t been to the river before and look down river.”

He tells them, Freeman said, that for the entire 50 mile stretch of the wild Missouri River, “this is the only place where you can look from the left bank to the right bank all the way down and not see a boat.

“It has changed. It has changed dramatically in terms of the value of the scenery when you see residential housing along the river,” he said. “When you see residences, it loses that spark, it loses the wildness and this is a treasure because it retains some of its natural beauty.”

The stretch of river in the area of the proposed housing development is unique, he added, because it isn’t connected to current development.

The proposed housing, Freeman said, is “its own sprawl of development that breaks up another precious, wild stretch of the river that really is the face of the park for most of us.”

He thanked the landowners who have preserved the land along the river over the years by keeping it zoned NRC Natural Resource Conservation.

“When it pulls out of NRC, the resource doesn’t change,” Freeman said. “The reasons that it qualified for NRC -- none of that changes. The only thing that changes is the zoning that allows for this significant residential development.”

Sandy Pederson of Vermillion said she and her family often use the river.

“I’m not saying that the housing development can’t be aesthetically pleasing, but it is totally different to walk down a residential area and admire the yards and the flowers and houses and to walk down a forest path and enjoy nature. It’s two completely different things,” she said.

Pederson said she believes that people who live in houses along the Missouri do care about the river.

“But, floating along looking at houses -- I don’t care how nice they are -- is not the same as floating along, looking at nature,” she said, “and so I’m very opposed to this.”


“We build a lot of houses around the area,” said Nick Slattery of AMS Building Systems of Vermillion, who noted that the area of the river where homes would be constructed needs bank stabilization. “The types of homes that we would be putting out there, if we get hired, are going to be bringing in a good tax base for this area. It’s definitely needed.”

Tom Powell, who lives along the Missouri River, said he is in favor of the project. “I believe that most of that bank is already stabilized to some degree. I don’t think that’s a huge issue.

“I’ve also been on this river since I was born, basically. I grew up here,” he said, noting that some people opposing the housing cite the potential loss of cottonwood trees along the Missouri.

“As an ag property, it can be stripped completely clean of trees and farmed,” Powell said, “and that would be more likely in a farming application than it would be if you put a house in there.”

Sara Mart, who owns land upriver from the proposed housing development, voiced support for the project.

“We haven’t had any flooding issues and have had tremendous amounts of wildlife frequently on our property and in our little neighborhood,” she said. “I’m in support of the new zoning to create these lots for single-family homes along the river.”

Mart said there is a strong need for such lots and she knows several people who are interested in purchasing land along the river as an investment or as a place to build a home or a cabin.

“People who own this river property do so because of their love and respect of the history and beauty of the Missouri River,” she said. “People who are willing to pay a good amount of money for these lots will take tremendous care of the property, doing all they can to protect their property including the river and the bank and the trees.

“This care translates to beautifully-owned properties along this stretch of the river for all to enjoy,” Mart said. “As a landowner, I frequently see kayakers and canoers enjoy the river and enjoy the bank views along the river. I know this because I see photos on social media of our river bank from people I don’t even know who have taken pictures from the river and from Clay County Park.”

That tells her, she said, that the development of her property has not diminished the beauty of the river experience.

“In addition to protecting the scenery, we have also helped a multitude of people who were experiencing trouble on the river, pulling them out of the river onto our dock, providing rides to Clay County Park, providing direction and have boated out to provide assistance,” Mart said.

“I’m going to say that was the nicest, most thoughtful thing I’ve heard out of anybody this whole time,” Matt Perkins, who said he moved to a residence along the Missouri River from Sioux Falls because of the river.

“My grandma had a place along the river -- a cabin -- and I bought the place right next door to that and it was my dream to have that place and to live along this river,” he said. “That’s a beautiful place and her (Mart’s) place and everyone else’s place along the river doesn’t detract from it at all and they care about the river.

“I love the river, I love the wildlife … and these people who live along the river don’t detract from the river,” Perkins said. “They add to the value of it.”

Steve Sanford, whose wife owns a cabin along the river, told the zoning commission that he believes the stretch of river in the area of the proposed development has been designated a national recreational river.

He said he believes it is unfair that he can reside along the river while others who would like to would be denied that opportunity.

“I feel that’s a tiny bit unfair. I will say I can stand on the edge of our lot and I can’t see a single structure,” Sanford said. “I see wildlife everywhere … and my neighbors care tremendously about the river.

“As much as I care about the river, people can use it,” he said. “I would feel bad if I got to live there and other people didn’t.”

Paul Remmes of Vermillion, a nephew of Dan Heine, said he began working on the proposed site of the new housing development when he was 8 years old.

“Over the past 50 years, I’ve seen a lot of bank get washed away,” he said, “and I know he’s lost many, many acres to that. It could be more dangerous not to develop it because I think the development could stabilize it, so I’m in favor of it.”

Gary Peterson of Vermillion, who grew up along the Missouri River and said he still spends a lot of time on the river, said he favors the zoning change and the new development.

“The new development does not detract from the beauty of the river out there,” he said. “In fact, when I take people with me, they want to go down that stretch and look at all of the houses that are along the river there. They think that’s really beautiful, too.”

“Any time you make a major change, there needs to be a better reason to make the change than there is to leave it the way it is,” Jerry Prentice, planning commission member, said. “To me, anyway, what people have said is more compelling for keeping it the way it is than making the change.”

He made a motion to deny the zoning change. It didn’t receive a second.

A second motion to approve the change, made by Marty Gilbertson, commission member, received approval from commission members Jay Bottolfson, Joe Hubert, Gilbertson and Travis Mockler. Prentice voted against the motion.

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