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Don't zone out on land-use issue

July 09, 2006|by LYN WIDMYER

You might want to get a big cup of coffee or a caffeine-laden soft drink before reading this column. My topic is the update of zoning and subdivision ordinances in Jefferson County, W.Va. I am pretty sure you will run the risk of dozing off without help of a stimulant.

The Jefferson County Commission has hired a nationally recognized planning firm, Kendig Keast Collaborative, to rewrite the county's land-use ordinances.

The consultants have already produced a draft report and conclude, "the current code has not been effective in managing urban and suburban growth or protecting agricultural areas that are truly rural."

The consultants also point out the current ordinance is unwieldy, outmoded and needs major structural changes to become user-friendly.

These conclusions reinforce what citizens and other consultants have been saying for years. Five years ago, another consultant hired by the County Commission, Richard Tustian, reported that Jefferson County's land-use ordinances are "obscure and inconsistent ... they do not provide much guidance in the way of written criteria ... and they tend to arouse resentment"

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The County Commission responded in a manner typical of how elected officials in Jefferson County respond to criticism about the planning and zoning process.

They fired him.

I am hopeful the current County Commission, composed of different people than five years ago, will respond to the recommendations of Kendig Keast in a more proactive manner

The $130,000 contract with the consultants was signed in February of this year and final zoning ordinance and subdivision regulations are supposed to be completed by March 2007.

How the public will be involved in the process is still undefined. The schedule shows lots of "public meetings or workshops." According to the contract with Kendig Keast, the county administrator is responsible for providing the consultant with support services "to organize, schedule, notify, provide meeting locations, conduct meetings and prepare minutes of meetings including committees, workshops, public meetings and public hearings."

So far, I have seen no schedule for citizen involvement as required by the contract. As a member of the Jefferson County Subdivision and Zoning Ordinance Steering Committee, I asked the county adminstrator for the schedule at our first meeting in March.

Nothing was available and this worries me. We now have a second meeting scheduled. The notice for this meeting did not include a schedule of citizen involvement, did not include minutes of the first committee meeting and did not propose an agenda.

I appreciate the County Commission's commitment to amending the subdivision and zoning ordinance. Kendig Keast is a reputable firm and I am sure its technical recommendations will be helpful.

The County Commission, however, needs to direct its staff to take the scheduling of public meetings, publication of minutes and analysis of citizen comments seriously. The contract explicitly directs county staff, not the consultant, to perform these tasks.

Staff, on the other hand, insists the County Commission has told them to take a "hands off" position. So who is responsible for keeping the public informed and involved? No one. This is unacceptable.

A local resident shared this view of the process with the consultant: "Your recommendations will be vigorously, and successfully, opposed if there is not real due-diligence with the public."

I agree completely. The County Commission needs to direct its staff to become active partners in this process and the first step should be making sure the public is involved every step of the way.




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

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