Murray County zoning situation affected by multiple factors

SLAYTON — Murray County officials and a Mason Township landowner are sorting out possible answers for a zoning question involving a hog finishing barn, a conservation-related tree planting, a forgotten ditch tile line, and severe 2019 weather conditions.

Landowner Phil Gervais, who farms in Mason Township north of Slayton, met with county commissioners as part of the open forum segment of Tuesday’s meeting. Gervais and board members discussed what should be done following the discovery of a ditch tile line underneath a 2007 tree planting.

The trees were planted as part of a hog finishing barn conditional use permit approved by the Murray County Planning and Zoning Board. To the best of everyone’s knowledge at the time, the trees were not expected to cause any drainage issues.

Instead, tree growth and expanded root systems damaged the tile, requiring corrective action to restore proper drainage.

“The trees were planted over the tile by mistake,” said Murray County Commissioner Jim Kluis of Slayton. “The landowner wasn’t aware there was tile, and it doesn’t show up on the maps.”

At Tuesday’s meeting, it was noted that the tile line had to have been overlooked at some point in the past 100 years when maps were updated.

In order to complete repairs; it will be necessary to either move the trees, take the trees out altogether, or reroute the drainage with a different tile path. Gervais said he wants the most practical, cost effective alternative.

“I agreed to plant the trees because the zoning board wanted them,” Gervais said. “It seems to make the most sense just to take out the trees, repair the tile, and get on with life.”

Murray County Zoning/Environmental Administrator Jean Cristoffels said county-based zoning and conservation offices encourage tree planting next to farm sites or livestock facilities for a combination of reasons.

They can benefit landowners by creating natural shelter for the livestock barn, resulting in either energy savings by lowering climate control costs for confinement barns or protection from the elements for cattle or sheep housed in open feedlots.

At the same time, they serve as a barrier between the livestock operation and neighboring property. Along with improved visual aesthetics, a tree planting also acts as protection against odors.

An additional advantage for the surrounding area is wildlife habitat. Although a tree shelterbelt doesn’t support wildlife to the extent of a larger, fully preserved natural area; it offers enough benefits to contribute to better overall localized habitat conditions.

“We encourage landowners to plant trees when they’re suitable for the particular location,” Christoffels said. “The advantages can often go well beyond the planting and maintenance costs.”

She said a $750 fee is charged when a Murray County landowner requests an amendment to a conditional use permit. The fee is not refundable if the request is denied.

She added that any landowner considering a conditional use request or an amendment to a permit is encouraged to talk to neighbors living in the immediate vicinity before taking a request to the county zoning office.

“It’s always important to look at all the factors,” she said. “For trees they might include surrounding land uses, costs of tree planting, and the distance between the trees and a building. We have a recommended minimum distance of 70 feet, and can evaluate how that might tie in with other considerations.”