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Commissioners shouldn’t eliminate appointed Board of Adjustment

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Few things are as important to good local government, or as dry, as zoning. But zoning decisions can also stir passions and make citizens, rightly or wrongly, as mad as fire. That’s why it is so important to make zoning laws and their implementation as fair as possible.

One major change to the zoning ordinance will be presented to the Spring Hope Board of Commissioners next week. Town Manager Jae Kim is proposing that the town board eliminate the separate Board of Adjustment established from the beginning in the town’s ordinance and instead give the responsibility to the town commissioners themselves.

Kim passed the change through the newly reorganized planning board, which means it will come up for a public hearing and possible vote this coming Monday at the town board’s 7 p.m. regular meeting. If the public makes no objection, odds are that it will pass. And that’s not necessarily a good thing.

Here’s why, but first a quick primer.

A zoning ordinance is the means by which a town decides how best to govern how land within and immediately outside the town limits is developed. Zones are established for residences, businesses and industries as well as for public uses such as schools, other public buildings and parks.

The intent of the ordinance is twofold: to give the town a “roadmap” for the orderly placement of town utilities and other services, and to help ensure the harmonious growth of the town by preventing inappropriate land uses from clashing, such as building a heavy industry with noise and smells beside a residential neighborhood or putting an adult business beside a school or church.

Balancing competing interests and ensuring that growth is beneficial, while also trying to make it fair for landowners to develop their own land, is not easy. Zoning rules are technical, and some of them are mandated by state law.

In Spring Hope’s ordinance, proposed land uses that might be obviously controversial or politically sensitive are designated as special uses for the elected town board to decide. Proposed land uses that require a careful review to ensure compliance with the ordinance but are not considered inherently controversial, like the location of a fire station or school, are designated as conditional uses to be reviewed and decided by the board of adjustment.

Got all that? I hope so.

The reason I’m concerned about the proposed elimination of a citizen board of adjustment separate from the town board is that I fear it puts too much power and pressure on the board of commissioners while removing the limited technical review freed from political considerations provided by a citizens’ board of adjustment.

The elected town board is, by its nature, very political. That’s why all policy decisions and controversial zonings come to its members for a final decision. They can be swayed by public opinion when public opinion counts. But there are some zoning decisions enforcing the law that should not be affected by public sentiment, and the proposed change unwisely puts the temptation to please, pressure from citizens and concentrated power in the hands of commissioners who are already vulnerable to public passions.

Kim says the reason he is proposing to merge the board of adjustment into the town board is that the members of the town’s board of adjustment have done a poor job attending the meetings, making a quorum difficult, and have had trouble following the zoning ordinance in making their decisions. And he’s right to be concerned.

But rather than overburden the town board and reduce citizen involvement, wouldn’t it be better simply to replace members of the board of adjustment with other citizens who will do a better job of attending meetings and following the law?

Terms of the board of adjustment, like that of the old planning board, have expired. The board has a list of citizens who volunteered for public service that it barely touched in appointing the new planning board, choosing instead to inappropriately reappoint two commissioners. Why not start there, or seek more names, in reforming a board of adjustment that works rather than constricting the advisory role of town citizens still further?

The town’s current zoning ordinance gives Spring Hope citizens an active voice in their own zoning decisions. Eliminating the board of adjustment simply for convenience will reduce that voice unwisely. Attend next Monday’s public hearing and make your voice heard.

Ken Ripley is a resident of Spring Hope and The Enterprise’s editor and publisher emeritus.

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