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Berkeley County Commission president opts out of meeting on proposed zoning and development ordinances

May 01, 2008|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. -- The simmering debate over proposed zoning and transferable development rights ordinances for Berkeley County devolved Wednesday into a debate over the definitions of "open forum" and "debate."

Saying his job was not to advocate one way or the other, County Commission President Steven C. Teufel said in a press conference that he accepted an invitation to take part in the Berkeley County Farm Bureau's open forum on the land-use regulations, but not the debate format clearly anticipated Wednesday evening and would not attend the event.

"No one ever said to me that this was to be a debate between the pro- and anti-zoning people," Teufel read from a prepared statement in a hastily scheduled press conference Wednesday afternoon.

"The president of the Farm Bureau led me to believe that it was a forum to be attended by Farm Bureau members, my friends, who had questions about the zoning document."

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Farm Bureau president Matthew Ware said Wednesday that Teufel was not being "set up" or ambushed by the organization's members, who overwhelmingly oppose the proposed ordinances. The Bureau's board of directors have formally voted to oppose the ordinance in September 2007, Ware said.

"It wasn't going to be an out-of-control mob fest," Ware said.

Anticipating a question-and-answer session with Teufel and two county planning department staff would turn negative, Ware said he arranged for zoning opponents Linda Gutsell, John Swift and Steve Cunningham to take part in the event at Berkeley County Fairgrounds.

"I wanted to keep it organized and civilized -- I didn't want it turn into a brawl," Ware said.

Teufel said he wasn't made aware of the format until Wednesday, when county officials received an e-mail about the "debate" at 12:09 a.m. Ware's invitation letter to Teufel dated March 3 makes no mention of a debate, describing the event as an "open forum" three times.

"If anyone would have suggested a debate, I would have suggested one similar to the one held at Musselman High School last week," Teufel said.

"Your county commissioners should not be debating this issue with people in the county. Others can do that. Our job was to respond to the request of several members of the community to prepare a zoning ordinance and to put the issue on the ballot so that the people of the county can decide for themselves if they want to approve this document."

Doug Copenhaver, of Building a Better Eastern Panhandle, a co-sponsor of the event, acknowledged that the exact format wasn't "worked out" until Tuesday night, but suggested the format Teufel was expecting would have "turned into a shouting match."

"We felt that both sides would have had equal time and would not be cut off," Copenhaver said.

Teufel felt the Farm Bureau's event was "hijacked" and said the true sponsors of the event treated him and planning department staff in a "cowardly and despicable way."

Without any "pro-zoning" perspective to offer the roughly 60 people who attended the forum, anti-zoning panelist John Swift offered a statement on behalf of Gutsell, Cunningham and himself. Swift was on the Zoning Advisory Committee, the panel that developed the initial drafts of the zoning ordinance.

Swift cited three effects of zoning -- loss of property rights, increase in the cost of operating county government and further empowering of the government. County leaders have said that fees charged for the zoning permit process would pay for enforcement of the new regulations and not result in higher taxes. Adoption of the zoning ordinance is necessary for the county to adopt the Local Powers Act, which would give the county more authority than the state currently allows.

All three county commissioners said Thursday they support the land-use ordinances proposed.

Stubblefield said the county was not motivated to develop the zoning ordinance because of some "power trip" and that the proposals were written as a result of requests from the public, which was then invited to give input.

"We asked the people of Berkeley County to be informed and vote intelligently on the zoning ordinance and not purely on emotion, or based on what somebody has told them," Commissioner Ronald K. Collins said.

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Both ordinances are on the May 13 primary election ballot and copies of the documents are available at the county's four public libraries and on the Internet at www.berkeleycountycomm.org.

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