Citizens Demand a More Open Process For County Zoning - The Missourian: Local News

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Citizens Demand a More Open Process For County Zoning

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Posted: Thursday, November 7, 2013 11:00 am

Residents are worried that changes to the county’s zoning code could leave the public out of the process.

At a public hearing on proposed changes to the county’s zoning code last week, some residents said they are worried that county officials are not doing enough to listen to the citizens.

Labadie resident Patricia Schuba asked why residents would not be allowed to make public comments on rezonings and code amendments at county planning and zoning commission meetings.

County officials say there is no reason to allow public comments on rezonings and amendments at the planning commission meetings because the county commission holds public hearings on those matters.

But Schuba said it would be beneficial to also allow public comments at planning commission meetings.

“You could have a lot of good input and discussion at that level before it ever gets to being voted on,” Schuba said.

No Public Comment

Residents are currently not allowed to make public comments on rezonings and code amendments at planning commission meetings. So the proposed changes would not alter the code in that respect.

The planning and zoning commission only hears public comments on conditional use permits since that body has the final say on those matters.

The county is in the process of rewriting much of its zoning code. The changes discussed at last week’s hearing dealt with the process of how county zoning issues are handled.

First District Commissioner Tim Brinker said he thinks public input is allowed under the proposed changes and that he has no problem approving them.

Presiding Commissioner John Griesheimer said the proposed changes will be taken under advisement.

Second District Commissioner Mike Schatz made a suggestion Tuesday to allow residents to make written comments on zoning issues if they are unable to attend the public hearing. But County Planning Director Scottie Eagan said this is already allowed.

Schatz said he just wants to make sure everyone who is concerned about an issue has a chance to participate in the hearing process.

‘Backwards’ Code

The changes to the zoning regulations are proposed because some of the code is “backwards” and confusing, Eagan said. Under the proposed changes, rezonings and code amendments would first go to the planning and zoning commission, which would then make a recommendation to the county commission. The county commission would then have a public hearing on the matter.

The code currently states that zoning changes first go to the county commission, which sets a public hearing. The matter is then sent to the planning and zoning commission for a recommendation.

Eagan said it is backwards to set a public hearing before the matter is heard by the planning and zoning commission.

In fact, Eagan said the county is currently following the process that has been proposed— not the one that is currently in the county’s zoning regulations.

Citizen Input

Schuba asked if there is a reason why public comment should not be allowed when an issue is before the planning and zoning commission.

Eagan responded, “The public hearing is at the county commission level, not at the planning and zoning level.”

Public comments are not usually taken at the planning and zoning commission because it is just a recommending body and the county commission has the final say, Eagan said.

The problem with having two public hearings — one at the county commission level and another at planning and zoning — is that there may be contradictions in what the residents say at the two hearings, Eagan said. Therefore, it is easier to just have one hearing, Eagan said.

Schuba noted that the public was allowed to speak at planning and zoning commission hearings on zoning changes for the proposed coal ash landfill. She is the president of a group called the Labadie Environmental Organization that has sued Franklin County over zoning changes to accommodate the proposed landfill.

Eagan said public comment was allowed then because the planning and zoning commission members made a special request to allow it.

Schuba asked if there should be language added to the proposed code changes to say that there can be special cases in which public comment can be heard at planning commission meetings.

When there are major changes to the county’s zoning code, the people are affected and they should have input, she noted.

Follow-up Hearings

Some citizens also expressed concern that county officials could make substantial changes to zoning regulations without giving the public a chance to comment. If there are additional zoning code changes that were not discussed at the original public hearing, there should be a follow-up hearing to take public comments on the new changes, the residents said.

County Counselor Mark Vincent said it makes common sense to have another public hearing if major changes are made that were not discussed at the first public hearing. But he said it would be a mistake to mandate follow-up public hearings because it could create a situation in which multiple public hearings had to be held over minor changes that were not discussed at the first public hearings.

“To make it (follow-up hearings) where it’s mandatory makes no sense,” Vincent said, adding that it would become a continuous “circle” of public hearings.

Schuba asked if the county could just post the final language online and give people a certain amount of time to respond to it. The point is to make sure the citizens understand the language that the commissioners are going to vote on, she added.

Vincent responded that he has no problem with that but said it would be up to the county commissioners. But Vincent said federal government agencies have one hearing officer who accepts oral and written testimony, and then regulations are made from that.

Schuba said local government has the ability to do more than the federal government. And taking public input does not require people to show up in a meeting room but could be done through an online form, Schuba noted.

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