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SHERIDAN — A discussion that resulted in a split vote between members of the Sheridan County Planning and Zoning Commission Thursday night pivoted on whether rules should be bent to accommodate man-made mistakes when it comes to zoning.
At the end of the night, commissioners voted 3-2 against a lot size variance for a parcel located southeast of Clear Creek near Clearmont. This means the Planning and Zoning Commission will recommend that county commissioners reject the variance request when they consider it Feb. 4.
Commissioners Audrey Brown and Mike Schumacher voted to approve the variance, while commissioners Jeremy Smith, Bernie Bornong and Steve Noecker voted against it. Reasons for each commissioner’s vote varied.
The parcel under question was a 40-acre parcel sold to John and Kathy Cattles by Paul and Carol Auzqui. The parcel was created when the Auzqui’s split their 120-acre parcel that straddles Clear Creek southeast of town. They sold the Cattles a 40-acre parcel zoned agricultural on the southeast corner of their lot, using the creek as a natural boundary.
After the Cattles acquired the property, they approached Sheridan County to receive an address. That is when it was discovered that the parcel did not meet minimum requirements that lots be at least 80 acres in size in order to develop on agricultural land, County Planner Mark Reid said. The Cattles decided to request a variance in order to build a house on the lot.
Staff recommended approval of the variance with two conditions: that provisions regarding large acreage subdivisions be met prior to obtaining permits for new construction and that regulations regarding development in flood plains be followed, Reid said.
Paul Auzqui spoke in support of the variance, noting that nobody — including surveyors and realtors hired to assist in the sale of the land — realized that development of the parcel would be a problem.
“There’s nobody down there that’s against the Cattles building a residence on these 40 acres,” Auzqui said.
Another adjacent neighbor said all neighbors had been consulted and were excited to have the Cattles build on the parcel. In all, four notices of support and one letter of support were gathered from nearby neighbors.
Commissioner Smith said he thought a zoning change would have been a more effective tool than a variance request since variances require that the rules be bent only when physical attributes of the land itself have caused a hardship that needs to be addressed in order to develop. He recommended zoning the entire 120-acre parcel as rural residential.
Reid noted, however, that the 40-acre area in question is zoned agricultural in the county’s future land use plan. Reid also said in his staff report that the loss of agricultural resources often happens imperceptibly as similar variances and zoning changes are made in pieces over time.
David Smith, an attorney with Lonabaugh and Riggs in Sheridan who has been hired to represent the Cattles, said that in his experience a variance is the easiest way to get the Cattles what they need since zoning changes can be contentious, especially since it would appear as spot zoning.
“The fact that zoning may be better does not mean that a variance doesn’t work,” he said. “To make them go back and jump through a different hoop to arrive at the same point…”
Bornong was concerned that approving the variance would set a precedent that the commission will bend the rules for man-made mistakes.
“I think this was a really unfortunate circumstance that occurred here,” Bornong said. “It was an honest mistake made, at least, by the parties involved, that they truly weren’t aware. That was a somewhat troubling aspect to me of not voting to approve this variance. But I really thought about the goals that we’ve put in place with the current county land use plan of trying to maintain that 80-acre minimum for the residential on ag land, and it just didn’t seem fair to me to go against the will of the commissioners and the people in general about wanting to have that in our land use plan.”
Noecker said he wished to hold to the regulations recently adopted by the county commissioners stipulating that one residence is allowed per 80 acres of land in agricultural areas.
He also felt the problem was not caused by the land itself and hesitated to change rules based on human mistakes.
Brown said she realized the variance was contrary to the 80-acre requirement but that she didn’t see density becoming an issue in Clearmont. She said it didn’t seem fair to punish the Cattles for a mistake they didn’t make.
“I don’t see punishing the people who purchased it,” Brown said. “It’s not a very nice welcome to Sheridan.”
The county commissioners will vote on the variance request at their meeting Feb. 4.
In other business, the Planning and Zoning Commission approved 5-0 a conditional use permit for Robert and Joan Ligocki to establish a private cemetery on their 1,677-acre ranch near Upper Cat Road.
The cemetery is proposed to be 2,300 square feet on a terrace above Wildcat Creek approximately 75 feet south of the county road. The cemetery will include 10 lots with pathways and parking and will be used as a family burial ground for the Ligockis.