Dubuque County zoning rule for residential use of ag land proving popular

A Dubuque County zoning designation for homes in traditionally agricultural areas has been used on more than 200 acres in the past several years and is now a consistently popular option for rural residents.

According to Dubuque County Zoning Administrator Tammy Henry, A-2 zoning is a method by which the owners of agricultural land (zoned A-1 in the county) can separate out a few acres of a farm to be rezoned for sale, financing or single-residence development.

“They try to keep them under two acres if it’s a new lot for a new home,” she said. “Anything else is based on the (existing) home and dwelling.”

Henry said the reason for the zoning ordinance is to help keep family farms within families.

“So, this is not about development,” she said. “It’s about not losing our farm ground.”

But, A-2 zoning was a touchy subject shortly after the Dubuque County Board of Supervisors of 2012 and 2013 were developing it.

In 2014, the Dubuque County Board of Supervisors faced a lawsuit from a couple who had been denied an A-2 rezoning due to their application not meeting the spirit of the ordinance. As a result, the county was required to grant the couple the rezoning — until an appeals court judge reversed the order.

“There were a couple of cases that made them sit back and wait on it,” Henry said. “So, it really started up heavy after 2015.”

From 2016 to the end of November, 110 applicants succeeded in rezoning a collective 210 acres of Dubuque County farmland to A-2. They averaged 1.9 acres per lot.

For context, Dubuque County GIS Project Coordinator Jeff Miller told the Telegraph Herald that there was approximately 510 square miles, or 326,400 acres, of farmland in Dubuque County, not counting crops being grown on residential land.

Henry said people want the A-2 zoning for various reasons, but that most often it is a young farmer moving back to help with a family farm operation.

“People get older. They’re not able to do all the work they used to,” she said. “So their children need to move closer so that they can be more hands on, not have to travel miles to milk or do the fieldwork.”

Amanda Schlemme works her family’s farm — cattle, hogs and row crops — outside Cascade and secured an A-2 rezoning from the Board of Supervisors last week to construct a new home there.

“Right now, we live in town,” she told the Telegraph Herald. “Moving closer, we will literally be right across from the shop, right where everything happens.”

Financial realities of today have a lot to do with families choosing this path, according to Henry.

“Young families aren’t able to go the banks and get the money to get the kinds of loans you need to start out farming,” she said. “A lot of times the banks won’t give them the loan for a 40-acre piece, but they will give them a loan on a 2-acre piece with a house. So, they get closer and continue to work on the farm like they have.”

The A-2 ordinance does allow for other reasons for the rezoning, however.

The Board of Supervisors approved three other A-2 zoning requests last week.

One was for a family to sell the farmhouse that would be rezoned, but keep working the farm around it.

“They already have a farmstead to the east,” said David Schneider, representing the family. “They’re just setting it up so that if anything happens to him where he can’t keep going, he can sell that farm house.”

Another was for a farmer near Epworth to build his first home in the area after farming nearby land for some time.

Henry said another option is for selling a farm house, but keeping the farm around it.

Removing agricultural land for residential use or breaking a farmhouse away from the farm are not always popular concepts. A-2 rezoning has to make it through the Dubuque County Zoning Commission first, where not every application succeeds. Certain members are particularly cynical about the process.

“They ask for the purpose and intent,” Henry said. “The intent of the ordinance is to assist these young farmers and help out the older farmers.”

As A-2 continues to be popular for certain rural residents in the county, it is still new, with many people watching how it is used.