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Special interests can't win with intimidation

August 27, 2006|by Todd Baldau

On April 7, 2005, I was appointed to the Jefferson County Planning Commission. I serve as a volunteer, without compensation. Last month, a petition was filed in West Virginia Circuit Court to have me thrown off the planning commission.

The planning commission is responsible for enforcing the county's subdivision ordinance. This involves hearing variance requests, declarations of violation, reviewing community impact statements and, perhaps most importantly, voting on "final plat" applications. It is at final plat when the planning commission decides whether or not to approve a new subdivision.

During my tenure on the planning commission, I have voted to approve 44 final plats and deny only five. Each time I voted to deny a final plat, I explained my reasons.

My primary concern is that the county's already overburdened emergency services (police, fire and ambulance) are not able to handle the additional workload from these projects. I also expressed concern that the proposals would create unsafe and overly congested traffic, particularly near schools, posing a special danger to those students who walk to school.

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In some cases, I also objected when I felt sewer service would not be available for homes in a proposed subdivision.

The five votes I cast against final plat applications have caused me to be characterized as a "no-growth" activist. But I am not a member of such a group, if one even exists. Rather, I am a local resident, trying to do the best job I can under the rules as I understand them - just like many other volunteers who serve on other county boards and commissions.

The petition to remove me from the planning commission is signed by 50 county residents. Most of those signing the petition are involved with one of the final plats I voted against, or otherwise associated with the residential development industry. In short, several local developers are angry at me for refusing to approve some of their projects, so they want to get rid of me.

Once notified of the petition, the office of the county's prosecuting attorney, which provides legal representation to the planning commission, advised that it cannot defend me.

The Jefferson County Commission, the county's governing body and the group that appointed me to the planning commission, told me it cannot authorize county funds for my legal defense at this time.

I think this sets a very dangerous precedent. Essentially, the County Commission is saying, "If you volunteer for a county board or commission, and somebody disagrees with any of your decisions, we are unable to back you up. You're on your own."

What does this mean to me? At my family's expense (I have a wife and two young daughters), I must hire and somehow pay for a lawyer for a legal process that could take a year or more to conclude and cost who know how much in legal expenses and fees.

Upon receiving the petition and being informed the county could not assist in my defense, my initial reaction was to simply resign and put the matter to rest. I figured "who needs this trouble, I'm quitting."

But I soon realized that if I were to resign it would set an unacceptable precedent, and suggest this type of intimidation by developers and land speculators is not only acceptable, but effective. If moneyed interests can intimidate and chase away any volunteer who refuses to approve their every whim, our county government will function solely and exclusively for those special interests.

The people behind the petition seeking my ouster probably expected me to walk away quietly. But simply caving in to intimidation is not in my nature, and it is not the kind of example I want to set for my children.

For those reasons, I've hired a lawyer and I will defense myself against the effort to have me removed from the Jefferson County Planning Commission.




Todd Baldau is a Harpers Ferry, W.Va., resident, and a member of the Jefferson County Planning Commission.

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