When is One More Lot Too Much? Rural Residential Development

The following was published first in the North Dakota Planning Association Newsletter and has been reprinted courtesy of the North Dakota Planning Association.

By: Natalie Pierce

For those planners whose professional mainstay is guiding the development of rural residential lots, pursuing the holy grail of an ordinance that can be universally applied across the expansive sea of the agricultural prairie can feel akin to throwing spaghetti at the wall. There is no definitive right way to go about it. But I offer you here the Morton County approach, as one policy perspective.

Rural development in Morton County tends to take one of two forms. The first type is generated from existing developer land holdings. The handful of developers who are active in Morton County will each tend to submit one large development annually. This type of development is more or less predictable because the location of the developers’ land holdings is generally known.

The second development scenario tends to take the form of a son or daughter asking mom and dad to break off one lot from the family farmstead so they can build their own home. This type of development tends to arrive in scattershot fashion, with no predictable pattern. So at what point does adding one more lot change the character of a family residential cluster from quaint to disorganized?

Historically, there has been no distinct criteria available to the Morton County Commission upon which to hang a “no” vote in response to a development application for one random residential lot. Finally, in November 2016, Morton County adopted a future land use plan for the northeastern quadrant of the County (the portion within the planning area of the Bismarck-Mandan Area Metropolitan Planning Organization). Then, in February of this year, the County adopted a major Comprehensive Plan update, which expanded the future land use map to cover the remainder of the County.

The Comprehensive plan identifies areas of the County that are suitable for development (whether residential, commercial, industrial etc.) and defines the collection of those areas as the Growth Priority Area. Not by accident, nearly all reaches of the growth priority area share the characteristic of lying within ½ mile of a rural water system trunk line and have access to a state highway or arterial county road. The growth priority area is where the County tends to see developers submitting subdivision applications.

All land lying outside the growth priority has either a Limited Open Space or Agricultural future land use designation. It is in this Agricultural area that the County generally sees development applications for single-lot subdivisions.

In Morton County the minimum lot size in the agricultural zoning district is 35 acres. The rationale behind this is that it equates to a neat quarter-quarter, with 5 acres of wiggle room to account for any right-of-way acreage that may have been deducted in the past, or may be deducted in the future. The updated Comprehensive plan established a policy framework to support this density of residences within the areas of the County that are planned to remain agricultural. The policy limits the number of lots – with entitlement to construct a residence – to four per quarter section.

Net residential density of four units per quarter section isn’t a difficult concept to conceive of. But the Comprehensive Plan illustrated a few common ways in which this scenario could play out. See Figures 1 and 2.

Figure 1.png
Figure 2.png

The policy also expressly does not restrict divisions of land that are eligible to follow the exempt division process (i.e. tracts with agricultural zoning where the resulting tract or tracts are larger than 35 acres). Take, for example, a quarter-section that already had three residential lots and one 70-acre agricultural tract (which has by-right entitlement to construct one residence). If the owner of the 70-acre tract wished to split those 70 acres into two agricultural lots, that would be allowable, even though there were already 4 entitled lots on the quarter to begin with.

Outside the growth priority area, after a specific quarter-section reaches the maximum density of four entitled lots per quarter, staff can advise potential applicants that approval of a residential subdivision in that quarter is very unlikely. Although, there is an alternative. An applicant has the opportunity to give up the right to construct a home on one parcel and transfer that right to an alternate parcel, by rezoning to the Estate zoning district. Estate district zoning allows a set of uses that is similar to Agricultural zoning, with the exception that a residence is not allowed on a parcel within the Estate district. See Figure 3.

Figure 3.png

Taken as a whole, this policy framework allows for the majority of son or daughter subdivisions to move forward, allows for multi-lot rural residential subdivisions where there is infrastructure capacity to support them, and provides a robust basis to deny when a land owner may be stringing together single lot subdivisions where they are not appropriate.

The Morton County 2045 Comprehensive Plan is available online at: www.co.morton.nd.us/comprehensiveplan

Author Bio:


Natalie Pierce is the Planning & Zoning Director for Morton County, ND. She served as a Planning & Zoning Commissioner for the City of Dickinson and also worked as a real estate agent. Prior to that, she worked for the Housing Department in the City of Virginia Beach, VA, on projects surrounding homelessness. Natalie holds a Master of Urban and Regional Planning degree from the University of California, Irvine, and a bachelor’s degree from Barnard College in New York City. She lives in rural Morton County with her husband and two young sons.

Paul Moberly