ZONING DISCUSSION: What’s the intent regarding private contractors?

A claim has been repeated several times in recent meetings about the Cowan zoning case that “every private contractor is being made illegal.”

That is not the intent of the Brown County Area Plan Commission or the planning office.

The APC discussed how contractors fit into the zoning ordinance during work session meetings in August and December 2019, which were open to the public. In those meetings, multiple speakers — including audience member Jim Schultz, an electrical contractor in Brown County for 40-plus years — expressed a desire to allow people to have home-based businesses, including contractors, if what they’re doing would not change the character of their neighborhood.

Enabling people to live and work in Brown County is good for the county’s economic health and tax base, said Schultz, who’s on the Brown County Redevelopment Commission.

RELATED STORY: Business zoning debate prompts questions about enforcement

The Brown County Building Department keeps a licensing list of contractors who work in Brown County — those who live here and those who don’t. There are at least 200 of them, and Building Inspector Lonnie Farlee estimated that at least half of them have Brown County addresses. That’s just general contractors, not counting the three lists of other contractors they also keep.

Two of them contacted Ritzmann after reading about the Cowan case, wondering if they were in compliance. One told her that he had a trailer and truck at his home and sometimes will rent an excavator for a day or two. Ritzmann said she told him that the truck and trailer wouldn’t be any different than what you’d normally see at a residence, so he was fine, and having other equipment temporarily at his house wouldn’t be an issue because by the time the planning office might receive a complaint, it would probably be gone.

The other contractor who inquired about the rules lives way back in the hills on a property zoned forest reserve, in an area where neighbors wouldn’t be likely to see his equipment. “As (attorney) Dave (Schilling) has said many times, if you’re a good neighbor, nobody’s going to complain and you won’t come to our attention,” Ritzmann said.

“The contractors in this county generally use vehicles and equipment that do not stand out and aren’t anything different than you would find in a residential use district — pickup trucks, etc., maybe even a trailer,” she said.

“In the case of Mr. Cowan, he had numerous big company trucks and mowing and snowplow equipment, and employees driving to and from his property and parking there. … And concerned neighbors brought this to our attention repeatedly,” she explained. Among other things, they complained about the speed those employees were driving on their road.

Ritzmann said she’d like to see Cowan’s business stay in Brown County, but it had outgrown its home base.

“I would really like to see Mr. Cowan take his business to one of the general business lots there in the Fruitdale area (along 135 North),” Ritzmann suggested. “There are several that are not being used at all. He could perhaps lease a space and have equipment and employees arriving there, and it would be a very good fit, and he wouldn’t be too far away from where he lives.”

Her view is that “contractors are going to blend with residential uses until they get to a point where they outgrow their residence district, at which time they need to seek commercial property or a general industrial use approval.”

In the Brown County Area Plan Commission meeting last week, member Kara Hammes asked for the ordinance portion that governs home-based businesses to be put back on the agenda for a near-future work session so that the board could better define where contractors or landscapers fit, making it clearer and “less of a grey area.”