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It's hard to plan without a plan in hand

March 06, 2005|by Lyn Widmyer

On Jan 11, the Jefferson County Planning Commission voted to approve a major mixed-use development, Windmill Crossing, without seeing the plan.

They approved 134 townhouses, 14 strip commercial lots and a mysterious 15th lot that may or may not include apartment buildings. The public notice for the meeting said all 15 lots would be commercial, but the developer revealed at the planning commission meeting that apartments were being planned on lot No. 15.

Planning commission members received no written materials in their packets about the Windmill Crossing development proposal, no written staff analysis and no subdivision layout. Even the developer was stunned. For one brief shining moment, I hoped the planning commission would do the right thing: Defer action on the plan until they had time to review the proposal.

Then Planning Director Paul Raco delivered his oft repeated "staff has found this project meets the technical requirements of the ordinance so you do not need to see it or discuss it, so just vote approval."

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The Jefferson County Planning Commission followed orders. They approved the final plat of subdivision, sight unseen, with only two dissenting votes.

After the meeting I went home, too furious and too appalled to sleep. I found comfort in a handful of chocolate chip cookies and some light reading material: The ethical principles of planning, published by the American Planning Association in 1988.

The principles have been updated and expanded, but I still like the older, one-page version. The list includes "render thorough and diligent planning service," "ensure access to public planning reports and studies on an equal basis" and "serve the public interest."

Like a steaming cup of hot cocoa, reading these principles calms me down. As a planner myself, I occasionally need reassurance that planning in Jefferson County is not the gold standard of my profession.

I still cannot figure out or understand why Raco failed to provide the Jefferson County Planning Commission with the material it needed to vote in an informed manner on Windmill Crossing.

According to Raco, his staff found the development proposal to be technically acceptable in November. I looked for documentation of that finding when I went to the Planning Commission office a week before the meeting.

It was not in the file for the Jan. 11 meeting. I asked to see the information on the subdivision that was being sent to the planning commission to help prepare them for their decision on Jan. 11. I was told nothing was being sent to them, not even a copy of the development proposal

Raco defended his actions at the planning commission meeting by saying that in the past, some members of the planning commission have asked not to receive detailed plans in their packets. And besides, two years earlier, the planning commsission had seen an earlier version of the plan.

Puh-leese! As a professional planner, it is Raco's job to make sure the planning commissioners have the information they need to vote intelligently on a development proposal.

It is also his job, as stated in the ethical principles for planning, to ensure planning reports and findings are readily accessible. To ask planning commission members to approve a subdivision that will forever alter the appearance and character of a key section of U.S. 340 without any plans or documents or staff findings is incomprehensible to me.

The Jefferson County Planning Commission should feel the same way. I hope the events of Jan. 11 will encourage Commission members to start demanding more from their professional staff.

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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