Lee County Zoning: How it works and how you can have a say in the process

A screenshot from YouTube of the Lee County Zoning Board of Appeals' March 6, 2024, meeting, which was streamed live to Zoom and YouTube by Lee County IT.

Editor’s Note: Several zoning meetings are scheduled over the next two weeks in Lee County. Here is an in-depth look at how the zoning process works.

DIXON – Zoning is a complicated matter, but for the public to provide input on any proposed changes or uses in Lee County – such as building a solar farm or allowing chickens on certain properties – the process is fairly straightforward.

There essentially are five steps in the zoning petition process, most of which have substeps, Lee County Zoning Administrator Alice Henkel said.

  1. A petition is filed with the Lee County Zoning and Planning Office.
  2. The petition is sent to the Lee County Board, not for a final vote but to be sent to the Lee County Zoning Board of Appeals or the Planning Commission.
  3. A date for a public hearing is set and legal notices are printed in a local newspaper, sent by certified mail and posted at the location in question at least 15 days before the meeting date.
  4. The ZBA or Planning Commission holds a public hearing on the petition, which can take one or more meetings to complete, at the end of which they vote on a recommendation to send to the Lee County Board, along with other required documentation.
  5. Lee County Board members vote on whether to approve the petition based on evidence presented at the public hearing.

Lee County Board members’ votes do not have to match the recommendation from the ZBA or Planning Commission, although they often do, Henkel said.

The part of the process most people misunderstand is when they need to provide their input in order for it to matter, Lee County Board Vice Chairman Tom Kitson said. The ZBA and Planning Commission meetings are the time for the public to provide evidence and voice their feelings for consideration by the County Board, he said.

If the process of a zoning petition getting passed or denied were compared to a jury trial, then Lee County Board members are the jury and, by the time they’re voting on it, they’re already back in the deliberation room.

“All the evidence is taken, all the recommendations are made, and then people start sending us emails saying, ‘Vote this down. I’m against this,’” Kitson said. “[But] it’s already been given to the jury. There’s no longer a time for that information. We need people to understand they need to get out in front of it.”

What is a zoning petition?

There are four types of zoning petitions: special use, variances, map amendments and text amendments.

According to the Lee County Code, a special use is “a use, either public or private, that would not be appropriate … throughout a district [with a certain zoning] because of its unique characteristics,” but which might complement and promote a variety of factors.

The County Code states that a variation is “a relaxation of the bulk regulations of this title, found to be in the public interest where, due to conditions particular to the property, and not the result of the actions of the owner or petitioner, a literal enforcement of this title would result in unnecessary and undue hardship.”

A map amendment is a change to the official zoning classification affecting individual parcels of property, according to the code. A text amendment is a change to the code itself, which affects the entire county.

Requests for special use permits, variances and map amendments go to the ZBA, Henkel said. Text amendments go before the Planning Commission.

Both the ZBA and the Planning Commission make recommendations to the Lee County Board, Henkel said. Neither make the final decision on a zoning petition, she said.

“Essentially, zoning does all the legwork,” Henkel said. “They do all the research, they hear all the evidence over multiple days and they do that on behalf of the County Board.”

What factors are considered?

For a special use permit, the ZBA considers the following factors when making its recommendation and proposing conditions: the character of the neighborhood; effect upon surrounding properties; traffic conditions; public utility facilities; environmental concerns; compliance with rules, regulations and standards set forth in the Lee County Code; and other matters pertaining to the public health, safety or general welfare.

For a map amendment, the ZBA considers the following due process standards:

  • The existing use of nearby property.
  • The extent property values will be diminished by any zoning restrictions.
  • The extent to which the destruction of property values promotes the public health, safety and welfare.
  • The gain to the public versus the hardship to the individual property owner.
  • The suitability of the subject property for zoned purposes.
  • The length of time the property has been vacant as zoned, considered in the context of land development in the vicinity of the subjected property.
  • The compatibility of the present, and proposed, classification with the comprehensive plan.
  • Whether there is a public need in the neighborhood for the proposed use.

Upcoming zoning meetings

  • April 1: The Planning Commission will meet at 6:30 p.m. regarding a proposed text amendment that would allow raising chickens in a single-family residential yard in the unincorporated areas of Lee County.
  • April 3: The ZBA will meet at 6 p.m. regarding a special use permit request from Pulse Solar II LLC for a 5-megawatt commercial solar facility in Palmyra Township.
  • April 4: The ZBA will meet at 6 p.m. to continue the hearing on Pulse Solar II’s special use permit request, a proposed map amendment and to open the hearing on a special use permit request from Woosung Solar LLC for a community solar energy system.
  • April 10: The ZBA will meet at 7 p.m. to continue the hearing on Pulse Solar II’s special use permit request.

The Planning Commission and the ZBA meet in the third-floor boardroom of the Old Lee County Courthouse at 112 E. Second St., Dixon. Interested parties also can attend the meetings via Zoom.

Alexa Zoellner

Alexa Zoellner

Alexa Zoellner reports on Lee, Ogle and Whiteside counties for Shaw Media out of the Dixon office. Previously, she worked for the Record-Eagle in Traverse City, Michigan, and the Daily Jefferson County Union in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin.