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Order must be brought to Jefferson planning

August 29, 2004|by Lyn Widmyer

Jefferson County (W.Va.) Circuit Judge Thomas Steptoe's recent ruling that the regulatory process in Jefferson County needs to be fixed comes as no surprise to those of us active in local planning issues.

In fact, an outside consultant reached the same conclusion two years ago.

In 2002, Richard Tustian, a planner hired by the planning commission to review the zoning and subdivision regulations and how they are administered, concluded: "The current ordinances are complex and difficult to understand their administration seems to have generated a great deal of anger and anxiety among the citizenry, judging from the number of lawsuits, acrimonious oral exchanges and related evidence of widespread dissatisfaction." The Tustian Report went on to suggest approaches to address the problem.

And what was the response from the planning commission and the County Commission to Tustian's findings and recommendations? They terminated his contract.

It seems dealing with individual lawsuits is more acceptable than tackling the bigger issue facing Jefferson County: Making sure the zoning and regulatory process is fair and understandable and that decisions are well-documented.

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This sounds like an overwhelming task, but it can be done if approached in an orderly and systematic way. I have three suggestions as to how to get started.

First, the County Commission needs to address the organizational confusion that reigns at the department of planning, zoning and engineering.

As a professional planner with more than 30 years of experience at the county level, I confess I cannot figure out how the department of planning, zoning and engineering is structured. I am still fuzzy as to what staff is responsible for what planning decisions.

Even the planning commissioners are confused, admitting at a recent meeting they were unsure who has authority over the chief planner for the county. The lines of responsibility and authority within the department of planning, zoning and engineering need to be clearly defined.

Second, the executive director of the department of planning, zoning and engineering should submit an annual work program for approval by the County Commission. The recently approved comprehensive plan is a grocery list of studies and amendments that need to be done to improve the regulatory process.

The County Commission should require preparation of a work program showing how and when these amendments will be completed. Once the work program is approved, there should be an annual review by the County Commission to ensure the schedule is being followed. The departmental work program should be available for public review and input.

Third, written staff analyses and recommendations should be required for all regulatory actions. The planning commission has adopted a bylaw that is very strange. The staff may provide a technical analysis of a proposed development only if asked to do so by a majority of the planning commission.

As a result, when reviewing subdivision applications or community impact statements, the planning commission listens to arguments presented by developers and then arguments presented by citizens without any benefit of planning context or guidance from their paid professional staff.

Land use attorneys must love this provision. Without a well-crafted basis for their decisions, the planning commission is an easy target for legal challenges on the basis that there is no documented rationale for the commission's actions.

A hot topic in the upcoming County Commission elections will be how to manage growth. I think the more pressing issue facing the County Commission is how to manage the planning process.

The courts, planning consultants and frustrated citizen planners like me have identified the problems. I will vote for County Commission candidates who will find the solutions.




Lyn Widmyer is a Charles Town, W.Va., resident who writes for The Herald-Mail. Her e-mail is rwidmyer@msn.com

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