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Washington County considers change to rules on public input

November 12, 2007|By JOSHUA BOWMAN

HAGERSTOWN - When the Washington County Commissioners met in Hancock last July, they were faced with a roomful of unhappy residents.

More than 50 people came to speak out against a proposed rezoning that would have allowed an RV campground to be built near the town.

"It was a big issue, and they were pretty incensed," Hancock Mayor Daniel A. Murphy said.

But before the protests could begin, Commissioners President John F. Barr explained to the crowd that the record was closed on the matter and the commissioners legally could not consider anymore testimony.

"People were very unhappy," Murphy said. "They felt like they didn't get a chance to participate."

County officials have been looking for months at increasing the public comment period on rezoning cases, which often involve plans for commercial development that draw opposition from local residents.

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Currently, the commissioners hold one joint public hearing with the Washington County Planning Commission for each rezoning case. After the hearing, the public record is closed.

The commissioners are considering changing the procedure to add a second hearing.

Under a proposal being discussed by the commissioners, the joint hearing would be split so the planning commission and county commissioners would each hold a separate hearing.

Commissioner James F. Kercheval said a second hearing would give residents time to digest what is being proposed before commenting.

"The public doesn't really realize what's going on in a lot of cases until after the hearing. At that point, the record is closed and we can't hear their comments," Kercheval said.

Planning Director Mike Thompson said the public record would be kept open between the two hearings under the proposal.

"The whole idea is to get more public input," Thompson said.

The Planning Commission approved a measure last Monday that would require rezoning applications to be more detailed, which Thompson said also would result in more information for the public.

"If people interested in a rezoning case come look at documents early in the process, there's really nothing there," Thompson said.

Thompson said the measure was linked to the proposed public hearing changes.

"They are separate issues, but together they will make this rezoning process easier for the public to participate in," Thompson said.

Kercheval said he did not know when the commissioners will take up the public hearings issue formally, but said it could be by the end of the year.

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