When the Dubuque County supervisors turned down Mark and Lorie Riniker’s request to rezone an acre of their property to build a second home on their acreage—as laid out in Dubuque County’s relatively new ag-residential zoning classification—they were thinking that the subdividing of a less-than-10-acre lot was not the intended consequence of the new zoning classification.

What they weren’t thinking of were the unintended consequences of that denial.

The Rinikers sued, arguing they met the requirements laid out to gain ag-residential zoning, and they won. Now, they get to build their house, and the county gets to pay court costs.

In the words of judge Monica Ackley, the court must determine the intent of an ordinance “from the words chosen, not what it should or might have said.” She also wrote, citing Johnson v. Board of Adjustment and warming the hearts of area property-rights proponents, that “Any ambiguity in a zoning ordinance should be resolved in favor of the unrestricted use of the property by the owner, and restriction should not be extended by implication or interpretation.”

As the county wondered how the lawsuit would wash, requests to build a second home on ag tracts have been held up. After the judge’s ruling, county officials were still wondering how they should make their intention clearer that ag-residential zoning is supposed to save ag land, not subdivide it.

Previously, rezoning for another home would require a minimum of five acres, and ag-residential zoning allowed a smaller parcel to be rezoned, theoretically saving more land for production.

This hand-wringing by officials strikes us as slightly inane. If the idea is to stop the further subdivision of small parcels of land, the obvious solution would be to include in the ordinance a minimum acreage of land eligible for ag-residential zoning, be that five acres, 10 or 40.

When the supervisors denied the Rinikers’ request, they took it upon themselves to determine an intent and distinction not set out in the zoning regulations. Then-and-now supervisors Daryl Klein and Wayne Demmer have insisted that the board of supervisors have final say in such issues, but we would rather that distinction lie in the letter of the law, not the hands and minds of fallible and changeable officials.

We hope that Dubuque County can revise its ordinance to make it clear what tracts are eligible for the building of a second home, and make it fair for the sake of all future applicants in Dubuque County.

Our Opinion is the consensus of the editorial board.