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Wednesday, 01 February 2012 20:03

Macon planning board on the chopping block?

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The fate of Macon County’s planning board and whether it will exist in a meaningful form will be decided at next week’s commissioners’ meeting.

At stake are the implementation of term limits, and whether those term limits should be retroactively applied to those currently serving. That could eliminate many of the staunchest pro-planners now on the board.

There’s also the question about whether the planning board should be diminished by commissioners from its current role as an ordinance-producing group to something like an “advisory” panel that generates suggestions.

An email last month from Commissioner Ron Haven to fellow county commissioners ignited the firestorm. He accused the planning board of running amok and disregarding commissioners’ instructions. Haven openly demanded Planning Board Chairman Lewis Penland be ousted, targeting the planning board’s most vocal advocate for development regulations, and further suggested the board might could be abolished.

Haven’s email generated more subdued, controlled responses from fellow commissioners during their last meeting. But the iron hand is still in the velvet glove as far as pro-planners are concerned.

“What it really seems like is that they are trying to load the planning board with people who are anti-planning and who are diametrically opposed to planning, though there’s talk about diversity,” said Al Slagle, a member of that board.

The more recent appointments to the planning board — those made since a new Republican majority won control of the county commission a year ago  — have been people who are open about their desires for no, or extremely limited, land-development regulations.

This battle has been decades in the making. Macon County commissioners have long resisted instituting planning regulations sent to them for approval by their planning board.

“This kind of open opposition is new,” said Susan Ervin, the only woman on the planning board and the longest serving member. Ervin has emerged recently — after two decades of service — as a lightning rod for criticisms of that group.

“There have been bumps before, though,” Ervin said. “Maybe 11 or 12 years ago, we tried to introduce a land-use plan that didn’t go anywhere, either.”

Although the county has a subdivision ordinance, it has been stuck on passing a steep slope ordinance despite work on one being in the works for three years. The planning board finally scrapped the slope ordinance last summer and replaced it with more basic construction guidelines, but commissioners have not yet given them the thumbs up or down.

The term-limits idea being floated might not accomplish removing Penland, who declined to comment, or Ervin, if that is indeed the goal.

The county would need to go back and determine exactly when each planning board members was appointed, according to Mike Decker, deputy clerk to the commission board. Additionally, the March 1972 ordinance that formed the planning board underwent revision in 2004. It might prove necessary to start members’ terms from that date, he said.

Mark West, another longtime serving planning board member who is pro-planning but could be considered more moderate in his views than some on the board, expressed discomfort at the tone of the debate.

“We’ve always been able to disagree politely,” West said. “To respect each other and be able to shake hands. I see it turning into a more hostile environment, and one that doesn’t serve the county well.”

The bottom line for West is ensuring reasonable planning measures in Macon County that adequately ensure the public’s safety.

“If you can contain a slide on your property, I don’t have any personal concerns about that,” West said. “But I do think the county has an obligation when it becomes a down-slope hazard to others.”

The open battle over the planning board’s fate has not engulfed those county employees involved in the planning realm. Planner Derek Roland, to date, seems to have risen above the fray, as has veteran County Manager Jack Horton. That has not always proven the case in past county fracases. Learning to handle such situations is part of being a government employee, Horton said.

“Sometimes you just have conflicts to deal with,” he said. “And we are here to do a job and to give advice where advice is necessary. But the commissioners are the ones who are elected to make the decisions. As staff, we give all the facts about an issue that we can, and bring back to them the best information that we can on a particular subject.”

Horton pointed out that those commissioners also must face the repercussions “of praise or blame,” whatever that turns out to be.

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