The Houston County Planning Commission held three conditional use permit (CUP) hearings on March 28. They eventually recommended that all of the CUPs be approved by the county board, but not before a considerable amount of debate.

The first two applications only brought brief discussions, while the third resulted in a lengthy series of conditions being added to the permit.

'Touching Moments' approved

The first CUP was for a home occupation. Shelly Ellingson of Mound Prairie Township applied to start up a therapeutic riding center and horse stable that will be called "Touching Moments Animal Assisted Activities."

"We've been planning this for over a year," Ellingson told commissioners. The establishment would be a 501(c)3 nonprofit, typically holding riding sessions from April through October. Initially, those will be offered two nights per week.

"We have to build a stable, but the arena part where the actual lessons will take place will be an outdoor arena," Ellingson said. "We are writing some grants to get some funding to be able to include a cover for the arena, so we can hold lessons in inclement weather."

The group's nonprofit status is through La Crescent Area Healthy Living, Ellingson explained.

After review of 14 applicable criteria, the CUP was quickly approved.

Skree hardship dwelling approved

The second CUP was for Gary Skree and the Skree Family Trust to locate a temporary "hardship dwelling" in Sheldon Township.

Skree explained that he would like to move a trailer/modular house to the farmstead where two older brothers are presently living, in order to provide maintenance for the farm buildings and overall operation.

Eventually, the old home will likely be removed, he said. At that time, a new house may be built. The trailer home would be removed when the brothers no longer occupy the farmhouse.

"I see no problem with it," Sheldon Township Supervisor Joyce Betz said.

Commissioner Glenn Kruse made a motion to recommend approval of the permit, but made it clear that when the brothers leave the older residence, the trailer home must be removed from the property. Skree agreed.

The vote to send the CUP to the county board for approval on April 9 was unanimous.

Outback Ranch also approved

The final hearing was continued from last month. It was for an "Exhibition Permit" for Leonard Jr. and Holly Wieser of Yucatan Township.

A CUP is required for concert events that host 250 or more persons, zoning administrator Bob Scanlan said. That includes a number of events at Outback Ranch, which the Wiesers own and operate.

Chairman Charlie Wieser recused himself as a relative. Vice-chair Dan Griffin presided.

Leonard, (aka "Jake") appeared with Winona attorney Steven Pederson. "I know there's some neighbors who had issues with the sound," Wieser began, "We are very sensitive to our neighbors. In the past, we did allow a few events to go late into the night, and we had some problems with some outdoor stages that we put a nip on."

Wieser offered to drop the maximum decibel level "at front of house" (in front of the stage) from 135 decibel to 120 dB. He also stated that the concert that raised so many objections from neighbors could not occur again, since only one outdoor stage is now permitted at the facility (three were simultaneously in operation during the concert last year), and that single stage has now been purposely faced into the sidehill and away from neighboring homes.

In addition, Wieser offered to further lower the sound level at midnight and close the outdoor stage at 1 a.m. The 120 dB level is the minimum that some national entertainers from Nashville require to stage a performance, he stated.

"Our neighbors mean a lot to us," Wieser said. "I know there was a particular situation where they had the stage pointed right at Kathy's (Kathy Morton's) house... Those days are over."

The concerts in question were "electronic music events" Wieser stated, which have a strong bass in the music.

Wieser pointed out though, "We started having music at our place in 2002."

Pederson said that the city of Winona has noise ordinances in place to control concert levels. With a simple decibel meter, sound levels can easily be checked, he stated.

Morton appeared. "He can't see my house, but I can hear him," she said. "I came to Houston County for the peace and quiet."

Brian Inglett said that local festivals such as Houston Hoedown and Apple Fest typically shut down concerts at midnight or 12:30. "We never hear it a lot, but with the techno-music you can hear it in your house with the windows shut, over the TV. It's a loud banging... That's too loud."

"I think what he's doing is great, but he's got to think about his neighbors. If he's willing to turn it down, that's all we're asking."

Heather Gray identified herself as Wieser's sister-in-law. She questioned the sudden need for CUPs for music events, since the ordinance has apparently been in place for decades.

"I'm rather confused when I look at your zoning ordinance, then look at the state statute you are referring to - the one that grants you regulations to control music," she said.

"I'm not saying that you don't have the right to control music, but it looks like a licensing process. I'm confused that something that according to statute should require a license should require a CUP."

"All of a sudden, now we're going to regulate music in this county?"

Gray mentioned several Houston County venues that hold large music events. Some have not sought exhibition permits as of yet.

"Without having clear standards, is everything going to be different?" she asked. "Is Camp Winnebago going to get a different deal?"

Griffin said that the reason this CUP was singled out for additional study is the number of letters from neighbors, along with the personal appearances at the Feb. 28 hearing.

Wieser added that he would be willing to turn down the sound levels during weekend concerts from the 120 dB mentioned earlier to 80 dB after midnight.

He added that complaints over profanity at electronic music concerts was a concern of his as well, and said he even pulled a main breaker when one act refused to refrain from the practice.

Lynn Albright of La Crescent stated that Wieser had curbed sound levels on the second night of the concert that particularly disturbed neighbors last year.

Michael Meredith said he has provided security at some of the events. He stated that when music is moved indoors from the outside stages, Wieser instructed him to keep doors shut to avoid amplified music escaping late at night.

After a prolonged discussion, commissioners placed a series of conditions on the permit, which will be reviewed in one year. They are:

• Only one outdoor stage is permitted.

• No more than three "electronic music" concerts will be held each year (there is no limit for other types of events).

• Outdoors, amplified music is to be turned off at 11 p.m. on Sunday night, 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday.

• On Friday and Saturday nights, 120 dB is the maximum allowed "at front of house". At 12 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights, the dB level is reduced to 80 dB. Outdoor amplified music ends altogether at 1 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights.

• When over 500 persons attend an event, the county sheriff will be notified.

• For indoor events, the doors will be required to be closed at midnight on Friday and Saturday nights. On Sunday nights the doors will close at 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday nights the doors will be closed at 10 p.m.

"We want you to succeed, and we want you to get along with your neighbors," Griffin said.

The motion to recommend approval with the conditions was passed with no dissent.

Four zoning permits were also recommended for approval. They included a home with garage in Mayville Township, a home addition, a porch and a pole barn.