Thursday, June 11, 2020

What Does a County Commissioner (Supervisor) Need to Know?


County commissioners (also known in some states as supervisors or something similar) often find themselves dealing with unique situations.  In rural counties, the commissioners are often familiar with the common ag issues that arise that are within the commission’s jurisdiction.  In the more urban counties, some of the things that a county commissioner can have deal with can be rather surprising. So, what are a few of the more common items that a county commissioner must deal with in an agricultural context?

The ag-related matters that a county commissioner may have to deal with – it’s the topic of today’s post.

Fences and State Fence Law

Robert Frost once said that, “Fences make good neighbors.”  G.K. Chesterton has been quoted as saying, “Whenever you remove any fence, always pause long enough to ask why it was put there in the first place.”  For rural landowners, perhaps one of the most common and contentious issues involves disputes concerning partition fences. Partition fences are those that separate adjoining lands. Each state has numerous laws concerning partition fences.  Those laws involve such issues as the construction of fences and what a fence is to be built of, what is deemed to be a “legal” fence, liability for damages caused by livestock that escape their enclosure, the maintenance of partition fences, the role of the county commissioners serving as fence viewers in settling fence disputes and rules for handling stray animals.  

In some instances, adjoining landowners may come to an agreement as to how to allocate the responsibility between themselves for the building and/or maintenance of a partition fence. If an agreement is reached, it may be wise to put the agreement in writing and record it in the county Register of Deeds office in the county where the fence is located. However, if the adjoining landowners cannot reach an agreement concerning fence building and/or maintenance, the “fence viewers” should be called.  In many states, the county commissioners (or their designees) in the county where the fence in question is located are the fence viewers.  The statutory procedures vary from state to state, but the basic approach is that if adjoining landowners can’t settle their dispute personally, then the “fence viewers” can be called to determine how a fence should be built and/or maintained.  That means that country commissioners must know and understand state fence law.

Zoning Issues

County commissioners often must deal with zoning issues.  In the agricultural context, the issues can include matters involving how an applicable zoning ordinance applies to a particular tract of land based on how the land is used as well as the size of the tract.  Many ordinances are drafted in general language designed to have broad application.  That means that they sometimes are not clear in how they apply to a particular agricultural operation.  Is simply cutting hay on a five-acre tract, “agricultural” or is it still residential or some other classification.  Commissioners must be well-trained on zoning issues and what statutory language means and how the courts interpret it. 

Generally, a county’s zoning authority arises under a specific state statute, which grants cities and counties the ability to enact “planning and zoning laws and regulations” “for the protection of the public health, safety and welfare.”  But, as applied to agriculture, care should be taken to think through clearly just exactly what constitutes “agriculture.”  For example, is a 600-head hog confinement building “agriculture” or is it a commercial/industrial building? 

To establish a new zoning regulation, it’s often the case that a county must first require a planning commission to recommend the nature and number of zones or districts which it deems necessary and the boundaries of the same, as well as appropriate regulations.  Additionally, it’s typically the case that regulations must be uniform for each class or kind of building and land uses throughout each district, but the regulations in one district may differ from those in other districts.

Commonly, once the planning commission has made its recommendation based on public input, the governing body either may: (1) Approve the recommendations by the adoption of the same by ordinance in a city or resolution in a county; (2) override the planning commission's recommendations by a super-majority vote of the membership of the governing body; or (3)  return the matter to the planning commission for further consideration, together with a statement specifying the basis for the governing body's failure to approve or disapprove.”  A similar process is followed if a county wishes to amend an existing zoning regulation.

Following this process, a county is limited in what type of zoning regulations may be adopted. Under the usual process that is common in many states, the county may adopt zoning regulations which may include, but are not limited to provisions which:  (1) provide for planned unit developments; (2) permit the transfer of development rights; (3) preserve structures and districts listed on the local, state or national historic register; (4) control the aesthetics of redevelopment or new development; (5) provide for the issuance of special use or conditional use permits; and (6) establish overlay zones. Thus, so long as the zoning regulation is for the protection of the public health, safety and welfare, and falls within one of these six types, then it is within the scope of the county’s zoning authority.

The scope of a county’s zoning authority with regards to wind generation is a big issue in many rural counties.  The Kansas Supreme Court, construing Kansas law, has addressed the issue. Zimmerman v. Board. of County. Commissioners, 289 Kan. 926, 939, 218 P.3d 400, 410 (2009). In Zimmerman, the Wabaunsee County commissioners passed a zoning regulation prohibiting commercial wind farms in the entire county. The Kansas Supreme Court found that under K.S.A. §§12-753(a) and 12-755, the county’s zoning regulation was not unreasonable since the county commissioners found that commercial wind farms would adversely affect aesthetics of the county, commercial wind farms were not in conformance with a comprehensive plan which sought to maintain open spaces and scenic landscape, a large portion of the community’s wishes were against the wind farms.

However, while the county zoning ordinance banned all large-scale commercial windfarms, it allowed for small windfarms, and also established zoning regulations concerning the construction of small windfarms, including density and spacing requirements, as well as setback distance requirements.  The court ultimately upheld the zoning regulation, which established the counties ability to ban all commercial wind development, as well as establish setback distances for small scale wind farms.

Zimmerman also established that a county’s ability to pass zoning regulations affecting wind power generation was not preempted by state law, namely the Kansas Electric Public Utilities Act (KEPUA).  There the court held that KEPUA only preempted local zoning in two situations, (1) placement or siting of nuclear power plants, and (2) placement or siting of electrical transmission lines. Hence, any county regulation regarding wind turbine setbacks would not be preempted by state law, unless it is specifically asserted by the KCC or “clearly stated” by legislation such as KEPUA.

To restate, the Kansas Supreme Court has held local governments have the power to pass zoning regulations, so long as that power is “exercised in conformity with the statute which authorizes the zoning.’ See Genesis Health Club, Inc. v. City of Wichita, 285 Kan. 1021, 1033, 181 P.3d 549 (2008).  The same requirements apply to counties when they adopt or modify zoning regulations, particularly in a wind generation setting.  At least in Kansas, so long as a county follows the state law procedures set out above, and so long as the zoning regulation is for the protection of the public health, safety and welfare, then it will be valid. Particularly in a wind generation setting, a Kansas county has the authority to establish setbacks for wind turbines, under Zimmerman, so long as the state statutory process is followed, and so long as that authority hasn’t been specifically preempted by a state law such as the Kansas Electric Public Utilities Act.  The same is likely true in many other states.


Being a county commissioner can be a rewarding experience. But, it can be a difficult job and requires knowledge of many issues to properly represent the county.  This is particularly true for those counties that have a mix of urban and agricultural interests.

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