Cornelius neighbors fight to keep preferred lifestyle

Much to their surprise, residents of a rural neighborhood on the east end of Cornelius are celebrating.

After learning roughly 40 farms and rural properties north of Highway 8 had been incorporated into the Urban Growth Boundary as part of the state legislature’s “Grand Bargain” law — which rearranged the boundary through deals and compromises between various affected parties earlier this year — residents of the area received another surprising blow.

They learned their properties were likely to be rezoned from rural to urban.

But at a Washington County Board of Commissioners meeting last Tuesday, Aug. 5, Commission Chairman Andy Duyck proposed the neighborhood keep its current zoning after about two dozen neighbors came to testify. A vote will be held Aug. 19 to accept a proposed ordinance change with updated maps reflecting the neighborhood’s rural zoning.

“It’s not imminent that area would be re-planned, so I saw no reason to change it,” said Duyck. “I saw no reason to restrict what they could do [with their property].”

“We were always hopeful someone would listen to us, but we were slightly surprised,” said Sarah Jackson, who lives on 334th Avenue and testified last Tuesday. “I love it here; I think it’s the perfect place. I don’t want it to change and I want the freedom to choose what animals we have.”

Urban zoning prohibits property owners from keeping fowl for sale and running swine operations.

Richard Howell, another resident of the neighborhood, shared stories at the hearing about his kids’ experiences raising pigs for the county fair through Future Farmers of America. “Without the rural zoning, we never would have been able to do that,” said Howell, who also plans to raise chickens. “I’m hoping to retire and live here indefinitely.”

Joseph Auth and Amanda Spahn were also hoping to expand their geese operation on their property on 334th Avenue, but urban zoning would have likely killed those plans.

The properties are currently filled with sheep, cows, horses and poultry.

It’s difficult to maintain a rural zone in an urban area, said Stephen Roberts, the county’s Department of Land Use & Transportation communications coordinator. A property’s zoning usually changes to urban when it becomes part of the UGB, which puts it in an uncertain “holding zone,” Roberts said, with the land poised for future development even though it may take years before that happens.

The city of Cornelius will need to carry out extensive planning and annex the property before development can occur, for example. And owners are not required to develop, he said.

Duyck said he didn’t think the challenges of having a rural zone in the UGB were insurmountable. “There’s a big difference between bare land in the UGB and neighborhoods,” he added.

Auth, Spahn and their neighbors are still nervous about the future, but keeping their rural zoning has bought them some time living the way they prefer.

“We are very thankful and appreciative of Washington County Board of Commissioners and planning staff for recognizing the existing farm and rural uses in our neighborhood,” Auth said. “Keeping our existing zoning mitigates some of the impacts of House Bill 4078 on our neighborhood. We feel that elected representatives are finally hearing our story, an opportunity we were not given during the House Bill 4078 negotiations.

“We move forward working with the city of Cornelius to ensure our neighborhood does not become annexed into the city and remains in unincorporated Washington County.”

Howell, too, was grateful.

“What we have out here is something really rare,” Howell said. “It’s a tightly knit rural community.”

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