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Commissioners 'shocked' over land-use bill

March 26, 2004|by DAVE McMILLION

charlestown@herald-mail.com

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. - Saying they were "shocked" over its contents, members of the Jefferson County Commission outlined their concerns Thursday about a bill passed in the recent session of the Legislature that the commissioners say changes the way counties such as Jefferson County approve major subdivisions and deal with other issues such as impact fees.

The commissioners and a county planning official complained that Senate Bill 454 is confusing and, depending on how it is read, seems to suggest that public hearings can be eliminated when the county considers major housing subdivisions for approval.

The bill is clear on one issue, said Paul Raco, head of the county's Department of Planning, Zoning and Engineering: It eliminates public hearings on minor subdivisions, which in Jefferson County are considered three lots or less.

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Raco expressed concern about that provision, saying he is sure there are people who want to voice opinions on small subdivisions that may be planned near their homes.

Raco theorized that elimination of public hearings on minor subdivisions must have had support in rural counties where there are few subdivisions of that size.

That is not the case in rapidly growing Jefferson County.

"I get three a week," Raco said.

State Sen. Herb Snyder, whose name appears on the bill as a sponsor, told the commissioners he tried to make changes to the bill but they were tossed out. Snyder said the bill was considered because there have been a lot of court cases in the state regarding how land-use regulations are to be carried out and the bill was designed to incorporate those cases.

Snyder was in Charles Town on Thursday to update the commissioners on bills passed in the Legislature, including Senate Bill 454.

The commissioners and Raco asked Snyder a list of questions about the bill. Snyder said he was not aware of some of the details.

Snyder said he was not aware of any provision in the bill that allows for public hearings on subdivisions to be eliminated.

At one time, the bill had more than a dozen versions, and that number was reduced to about eight when the session started, Snyder said.

"It was very hard to follow," Snyder said.

Commission President Al Hooper and Commissioner Jane Tabb pointed out a section of the bill that seems to suggest counties can adopt proffers as a way to pay for public services instead of using impact fees. Proffers are money that towns can collect to pay for public services, like schools.

Tabb wanted to know how the bill affects the county's impact fee system.

Jefferson County recently completed a long process of developing a school impact fee system for the county, which started on Jan. 26.

"This certainly throws a lot of uncertainty in what we have been dealing with," Commissioner James G. Knode said.

County officials often complain about the confusing nature of the state law that allowed impact fees. Knode said Senate Bill 454 is "every bit as murky."

Commissioner Rusty Morgan said he was "shocked" over the contents of the bill and how it made its way through the Legislature.

"It looked like it was a free-for-all and it was out of control," Morgan said.

Morgan, who also is a member of the Jefferson County Planning Commission, the agency that oversees land development, said he was disappointed that the planning commission was not kept up to date on the bill.

Snyder said he tried to stay in touch with people who were worried about it.

Despite the concerns about the bill, Raco said "there are so many loopholes" in it that the county may be able to steer around requirements of the bill and continue with its own system.

The bill is awaiting Gov. Bob Wise's signature. The commissioners have sent Wise a letter asking that he veto it.

Wise spokeswoman Jody Omear said Thursday that officials in Wise's office could not locate the commissioners' letter.

Senate Bill 454 is still under review by attorneys in Wise's office, Omear said.

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