Who Controls The Land?

December 2017 WATCHDOG

To many it is the owner of the land who controls how a piece of property is used. About fifty years ago Dickinson County and most of our cities adopted zoning ordinances to provide better control of land use. A zoning ordinance is a written regulation that defines how property in specific geographic zones can be used. The ordinance specifies if a zone can be used for residential or commercial purposes, and may also regulate lot size, building placement, density, and the height of structures.

Typically within each zoning classification there are subcategories, for example:

A-1 Agricultural

A-2 Environmental

R-1 Single Family

R-2 One - Two Family

R-3 Multi-family Residential

R4 Lakeshore Residential

R5 Mobile Homes

General Commercial

Highway Commercial

Resort Enterprise

Light Industrial

Heavy Industrial

Typically a Planning and Zoning Commission is authorized by each community zoning ordinance to recommend changes to the zoning ordinance to accommodate changing uses. Members of the P&Z are appointed by the cognizant government entity.

Typically each community has a Board of Adjustment that is authorized to approve “Conditional Uses” that are already provided in the zoning ordinance. They can also approve “Variances” from the zoning ordinance to allow a specific exception for a specific property. Members of the BOA are appointed by the cognizant government entity.

An important issue in the lakes area is a real estate technique called “key holing”.  That is the practice of using a water front property as a common open space giving water front access to a larger development located away from the waterfront. In most cases back property owners will claim the right to install docks and/or hoists in the lake due to a narrow strip of land that connects them to the lake. Most zoning ordinances have a “key holing” provision to control the amount of lake access.


Iowa law as enacted by our legislature does not allow cities or counties to have any zoning jurisdiction over farming. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources and the County Board of Supervisors have almost no control over the siting of large animal operations. A “Master Matrix” was intended to protect homes, schools, churches and others from Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO’s) with 4,000 or more hogs. Unfortunately, many feel the MM is very weak.

Dickinson County is the only county in Iowa that advertises a Public Hearing (Lakes News Shopper) to alert residents that a CAFO or new Manure Management Plan is being proposed in their neighborhood. A 2008 “gentlemen’s agreement” with major hog producers has protected the Iowa Great Lakes with a four-mile protection zone. Some people don’t believe that protection is very important. Specific livestock questions can be addressed to the DNR Environmental Services Division in Spencer at 712/ 262-4177.


EDITORS NOTE: The information provided in this newsletter represents only a short summary of zoning information. Readers are encouraged to review the entire zoning ordinance for their jurisdiction and consult an attorney when necessary.