Sauk County Zoning Department Runs into a Buzz Saw at the Birkemeier Farm

Two dozen neighbors confronted Mark Steward, Director of the Sauk County Zoning Department when he and  his assistant Steve Sorenson  visited Timbergreen Farm May 5th .    It has been 28 months since the zoning department first demanded that the Birkemeier’s get a Special Exception Permit for their  WoodMizer sawmill.  “Steve and I have never been on this property,” said Steward.  In that time the County Board has amended the ordinance so that a farmer can have a sawmill to process their own logs and be exempt from the permit and Sauk County fined Helen Birkemeier $249 for having a WoodMizer sawmill on her land, yet this is the first time the county staff had even seen the small part time woodworking machine.

“We have repeatedly invited the County staff and supervisors to visit here to see that we are obviously a family farm, producing many agricultural crops,”  state Jim Birkemeier.  “To consider our farm a ‘ag-related business’ commercial sawmill is totally ridiculous.”

“It needs a permit because the ordinance says it needs a permit,” Steward stated to the group.  
The memo announcing the Public Hearing on  amending the ordinance as it relates to sawmills starts “In response to a number of inconsistencies and concerns recently identified with the Sauk County Zoning Ordinance…   The amendment seeks to provide clarity …”   This meeting made it clear this issue is still a major concern for area people and further clarification is certainly needed.

“The zoning department is taking 12 words out of context and ignoring the entire purpose and content of the rest of the 55 page ordinance,” complained Jim Birkemeier.  “Every other government body in the country understands that timber is an agricultural crop and all farming is approved with no special use permits needed.  The definition of a farm in the Sauk County ordinance says ‘A land area devoted to the production of agricultural products, forest products….’   It includes forest management in the definition of agricultural use.  In ‘permitted uses‘, the ordinance includes general farming, dairying, forest management.  The writers of the ordinance assume that those enforcing it would be knowledgeable on what dairying, forest management, producing forest products  etc. means and involves.  I believe our current department staff are negligent in their handling of this matter.  The County Board should also know the whole ordinance before they make decisions that greatly affect a person‘s life.” 

Jim Birkemeier described  to the crowd the proceedings in the Circuit Court trial in Baraboo 4 months ago.  “Mark Steward testified to the judge that the county’s reasons for requiring the permit were;  ‘noise, dust, traffic, materials, and rodents. ’  We measured the noise level from the sawmill and our lawn mover - they were about the same, but only half the noise of my chainsaw that doesn‘t need a permit.  The sawdust is collected and used.  Our method of forest management eliminates the use of log trucks on the roads.   Only a few logs are stored for short periods of time - we saw them promptly.  The slabwood is cut up for fuel wood.  Rodents are not a problem at a sawmill, compared to any other farm.  And our rattle snakes would eat them if they were here.  Mark also told the Judge ‘as far as I know, their WoodMizer is the only sawmill in Sauk County that has not gotten the permit.’  Steward and Sorenson also told the judge incorrect information 4 times concerning land use permits and cottage industries, but since no one knows this confusing old ordinance, everyone just accepts that the zoning department knows and interprets the law fairly.   And since they charged Mom and not me, I was blocked out of the legal action”. 

Those familiar with the new small personal sawmills, now common around the world, agreed that they have done research and believe that no other county in the U.S.A requires an expensive permit to have a WoodMizer type machine on a premises for more than 10 days.

Three landowners from Iowa County explained how their county had similarly told them that they needed special zoning for a “sawmill”, but then quickly recognized that tree farming and selling forest products was already approved as agriculture.  

“In Iowa County last year Dean Swenson and I had a fruitful discussion with the County,” said Alex Greene. “We all agreed to a commonsense interpretation of small sawmills that are used as agriculture, that have  been present in all of these valleys for generations.  Therefore, no particular revision or new language was needed in our ordinance because agricultural uses are already fully included as acceptable land use.  In my view, the Sauk County ordinance was clearly intended for regulation of large, commercial operations, not small-scale farm-based ones like Jim has.  I believe, Sauk County needs to ground itself in a common-sense interpretation of agricultural sawing operations such as Jim's and recognize that this activity has a longstanding tradition.”

Every person had a chance to speak, each and every comment was supportive of the Birkemeier’s stand.  A unanimous show of raised hands was made in support of the idea that the Birkemeier’s should be able to operate their farm wood products business with no special permit being required.  Shawn Olmstead said “We should call this the TREE Party”   Taxpayers for Responsible and Equal Enforcement.

Much of the discussion centered around the recent amendment, adding a definition of sawmill to the ordinance.  “We never had a definition before,” said Steward.  The new ordinance defines a sawmill as “A facility where logs are sawn into wood products….”  But the Birkemeier’s object to the part of the definition that says they can sawmill their own logs, but no logs can be sawn for a neighbor without first getting the permit.  This contradicts other parts of the ordinance in several ways.  There was universal agreement in the group that this change was wrong and there was no reason or fairness in the change.  Many people testified to the need for local sawmilling services as most of the big mills have closed or don’t offer custom sawmilling.

Steward and Sorenson seemed preoccupied with taking photos and searching other parts of the farm operation beyond the sawmill shed where the people were gathered.  Bill Birkemeier questioned Steward why they were walking around and wanted to see inside the barn, and challenged their right to search his farm.  Jim did show the group the woodworking shop, after making it clear that he too questioned their motives and right.  Some of the participants became frustrated that the zoning staff was ignoring their comments.  Jeff Sprecher exclaimed at one point, “Look at him (Steward), I’m talking right to him and he doesn’t even pay attention.”

All of the Township of Spring Green Board members attended this tour of Timbergreen Farm and will send a letter to the County Board as Chairman Dennis Polivka told the group, “We will have to go to their (zoning dept) bosses  on this…”

“This isn’t about a $500 fee”, emphasized Jim Birkemeier.   “This is all about personal freedom from unnecessary and unfair government.”
“This is why we left England,” concluded Mike Neta.