Iowa bill proposes limited control of rural farms from local government

A new bill would forgo the requirement of farmers to pay fees or fill out applications to work on their own land, limiting control of local governments in rural land.


Katie Goodale

The Iowa State Capitol building is seen in Des Moines on April 9, 2019.

Annie Fitzpatrick, News Reporter

A bill introduced in the Iowa Legislature that would give farmers more control over their land and businesses has generated mixed reactions among Johnson County supervisors, farmers, and residents.

The bill limits local government control after the Johnson County Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance concerning land use in December 2019.

Iowa Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, introduced the bill, which would eliminate the requirement for farmers to pay fees or fill out applications on their own land.

Kaufmann said Johnson County’s role in farming is not about local control, but characterized the supervisors’ agriculture ordinances as a power grab. He said that for as long as he has been alive, it is the state’s role to govern livestock and farms, not counties.

“My goal is to let Johnson County supervisors know that they don’t have the right to attack rural Johnson County with their ordinances,” he said.

Kaufmann said the bill is not just about larger farms in Johnson County, but that it also benefits smaller farmers. For this reason, he said the bill received bipartisan support in both chambers and from elected Johnson County officials.

House File 2477 would prohibit a county from requiring a conditional use permit, special-use permit, special exception, or a variance for agriculture experience on agriculture property where its primary use is agriculture production. The bill defines agriculture experience to include any agriculture-related activity on a farm with the purpose of production or educating the public about agriculture.

RELATED: Johnson County Board of Supervisors passes Unified Development Ordinance proposal, 3-2, in first consideration

The Iowa State Association of Counties, however, has registered as opposing the provision. In response to this, Kaufmann said their focus is on this bill’s limitations of local control from counties and not on the rights of rural farmers themselves.

“Their argument is that this is a local control issue, and I would adamantly and vehemently disagree,” he said. “The counties don’t have the right to take this power, it’s not theirs to take.”

The Johnson County Board of Supervisors has been critical of these bills and the limits it imposes on their control of local land.

In December, the Johnson County Board of Supervisors passed the Unified Development Ordinance in a 3-2 vote that would tighten land-use and animal confinement regulations for farmers, such as what land can qualify for agriculture exemptions from building and zoning regulations.

Plots of land less than 40 acres are not presumed by the county to be primarily used for agriculture purposes, so to receive an exemption, the farmer must demonstrate education in agriculture with the intent to continue significant and ongoing agriculture operations on the property.

Kaufmann said the Johnson County Board of Supervisors is dead wrong, and they never had the right to take the control away from local farmers. In particular, he said this is the way Johnson County Supervisors Lisa Green-Douglas and Janelle Rettig are trying to take control of Johnson County agriculture.

RELATED: Johnson County supervisors OK final version of Unified Development Ordinance

In an email to The Daily Iowan, Rettig said it’s not only time for a state-wide moratorium in consideration of agricultural issues such as Confined Animal Feeding Operations.

“He should consider focusing on state issues and leave land-use decisions up to those actually elected and appointed by Iowa law to do that work,” Rettig said. “If he can’t respect Iowa’s rich tradition of local control, he really should leave office for those that do understand the differences in government.”

Buchanan County farmer Doug Lentz said that although he is not familiar with the particular details of the bill, he supports the freedom it would give to farmers in Johnson County. He said he is not opposed to regulation, but some regulations do not consider the needs of rural areas in the state, but rather regulate them as if they are close to a city.

Lentz also said there is often overregulation of farms, which he says ultimately hurts business. Lentz said members of his family have suffered the consequences of overregulation and faced fines of over $5,000.

“If the bill that he has proposed is going to eliminate Johnson County power, I am highly in favor of that because the government tends to overregulate businesses,” Lentz said. “And the farmers are not the only ones being overregulated also.”

Kaufmann said he thinks his bill will become law, and the process to do so should be relatively smooth. He said the bill is critical for Johnson County and has seen support at forums he has spoken at in West Branch, Iowa City, Coralville, and Solon. The bill passed the Legislature’s first funnel deadline Feb. 21.

“I think it’s going to be just as simple as running both off of the House floor, running both of the Senate floor, and asking the governor to sign them,” he said.

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