Clay County looks for opinions on zoning

Matt Jacobson
Planning & Zoning Director

Nancy Edmonds Hanson

Matt Jacobson wants to hear what you think about the county’s zoning laws.
The Clay County planning and zoning director is turning to the internet to gather rural residents’ opinions about the zoning laws that regulate what goes into – and what stays out of – their neighborhoods.
“It’s not only farmers who have concerns about how we regulate development,” he explains. “Things are changing. More people are wanting to live out of town. The zoning code places some limits on what can be developed next door to them.
“We’re looking for input from people who live and work in Clay County – how they feel about land use regulation and what kinds of development they would like to see in the future.”
Clay County regulates building, land use and subdivisions in the unincorporated areas of the County through the implementation and enforcement of zoning laws. The purpose of zoning is to promote the public health, safety and general welfare of county citizens. Zoning is a police power granted to counties and municipalities by the state of Minnesota.
Moorhead and most other incorporated communities and some townships have their own zoning regulations, Matt points out. The county code applies to those who live outside their boundaries.
“The code was last updated in 2012, so it’s time to take another look – to look at a wholesale update,” he notes. “We need to match the code with the comprehensive plan adopted by the Clay County Commission in 2022. It will set a vision for land use and development in the rural areas.”
The county’s regulation of development dates back to 1965, when the first zoning ordinance was enacted. It has evolved over time to align the rules with both state laws, which have been updated regularly, and the changing economy. Among the former are property line set-backs required for rural structures. “They vary a lot,” the director points out. “Clay County says that if you build a house, shed or garage in most places, it has to be set back 150 feet from the center of the roadway. Some counties say 90, some 75. Some measure from the right of way instead of the center.”
He cites some of the changes in the rural landscape: “We’re seeing more folks who grew up in Clay County who want to come home, but not necessarily to farm. Since COVID, more people are able to work remotely.”
Other changes have included a proliferation of gravel mining activity, particularly in the eastern area. “The demand in the FM area is growing, including for the Fargo Diversion,” he points out. The total number of active gravel pits has grown to 65.
Alternative energy, too, has prompted changes. Excel’s community solar garden south of Felton on the east side of Highway 9 is one example. The code was revised in 2018 to support this and other renewable energy projects.
While Matt asserts the code is intended to support development of non-agricultural projects to build the economy, he notes that the larger picture is preservation of the county’s agricultural character. “What businesses would fit in?” he asks. “For example, woodworking – cabinet making – is an industrial activity that currently wouldn’t be allowed.
“There’s also a lot of talk about ‘accessory dwellings’ on the same property,” he says. The small secondary housing units share the same ground as single-family residential properties. Such secondary house today is limited to manufactured housing on wheels – mobile homes. A variance is now required to locate one on a foundation.
“Our rules are probably a little outdated,” Matt concedes. “We need to bring them into alignment with what our rural residents want to see today.”
Opinions will be gathered through April 15. The online survey, with only eight questions, is posted at After tabulation, the results will be forwarded to the county planning commission, which also plans to hold public hearings later this spring. Comments can be submitted in writing or presented in person. After the commission has reviewed and perhaps adjusted the code, the results will be forwarded to the county board for final action.


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