County considers changes to hearing schedule

Sussex County Council members on Oct. 6 discussed whether the county should extend the period of time between public hearings on changes of zone and conditional uses before its Planning & Zoning Commission and the public hearings held on those same applications before the county council, which has the final say.

The current system schedules the hearings before the council some 19 days after the P&Z hearing is scheduled, sometimes leading to the P&Z recommendation on those applications having not yet been made when the council holds its own public hearings less than three weeks later.

Councilwoman Joan Deaver proposed the period between the two sets of hearings be extended from 19 days to 60 days, ensuring that the P&Z recommendation is in prior to the hearing before the council.

Commissioners must vote on an application within 45 days of the hearing before the P&Z or have their inaction seen as an approval, so scheduling the council hearing 60 days later would all but guarantee that the council would have the benefit of the P&Z recommendation before it hears and potentially decides on an application.

“A lot of people have asked me why the council is having a hearing when they haven’t had a recommendation from the commission,” Deaver explained. “It seems that, with respect for the Planning & Zoning commissioners and all the work they do, I think it would be better to have our hearings after we know what their recommendation is.”

Deaver said her constituents had asked that they have time to hear what the P&Z recommendations are before they attend the county council hearings. She allowed that even as little as 47 days would ensure that that would be the case for most applications, but she voiced objection to the suggestion that the 19-day standard would be sufficient for applications pertaining to parcels less than 5 acres in size.

“I think not having it for smaller applications would be confusing,” Deaver said of the longer period. “And sometimes those smaller applications can bring quite a lot of attention from the public. I’m asking on behalf of the public for extra time between the two hearings,” she concluded.

Extended period poses some concerns

The proposed change would add 28 days – four weeks – to the current schedule, which led to the suggestion for limiting the extended period to larger parcels. Staff said only occasionally does the P&Z not act within 45 days of a hearing and that the decision is normally made within a week or two of the 45 days.

Planning Director Lawrence Lank expressed some concerns about the proposed change, including that it might force the planning department to do two separate mailings of notice to adjacent property owners, when the county currently sends a single notification with the dates of both public hearings.

“We can still schedule in advance,” Deaver noted. “We can still do that. We’ll just have 60 days in between.”

Councilman George Cole said he didn’t have a problem with the change, particularly since the council can choose to act on an application even if the P&Z recommendation is not yet in. Lank noted that the county procedures say the council can act after 45 days because they can assume an application is approved by P&Z if commissioners take no action.

“We’ve got the people coming in for the P&Z hearing,” emphasized Deaver. “Then they want to come in for the P&Z vote. Then there’s the county council hearing, and then our vote. It’s an awful lot. I think it would be simpler if they knew first what the recommendation was.”

Lank said even that posed some concern, since opponents of an application may not show up for the county council hearing because they know what the P&Z recommendation is.

County Attorney Everett Moore also urged caution. “We have to also look at the applicants’ rights. … A mom-and-pop operation can take two years from highway requests to the P&Z. … We’re looking at adding additional time for those. It might be better to look at ways to carve out those specific ones that tend to be controversial, because that’s what’s brought this to the forefront.” He noted past exceptions made to require longer notice periods for projects such as big-box stores.

“There have always been a few here and there that are smaller and controversial,” Cole noted.

Moore said the council, at the introduction of an application, could move that a particular application be given longer notice.

“We don’t always know,” Deaver said of those applications’ controversial natures.

“Can we try to pull the ones out that typically require [more notice] and use council discretion on the rest?” asked Cole.

“It would be simpler to have them all the same,” replied Lank. “The backlog’s not there that was there six months ago. If an application came in today, it would be less than a year to get through,” he noted, addressing a potential concern about delays in county approval processes that even a year ago might have garnered significant concern. “The delay is most often with the state,” Lank said of the current situation.

“We do get a report from the P&Z before we have the hearing, but the public doesn’t,” Deaver emphasized. “Over and over again, I’m hearing that they’re not getting enough notice.”

“I’ve had people tell me they didn’t come to our meeting because P&Z already had their hearing,” Cole offered.

Lank noted that four council meetings in a row in the past month have had something controversial. “You’re going to have, on average, one a month that’s controversial.”

Councilman Sam Wilson said he was concerned about the applicants being impacted by a longer wait. “You have to have consideration for the applicants. We can just stall and stall…”

“I don’t think anyone has said that 60 days is excessive,” replied Cole.

Importance of public, staff and P&Z input considered

Council President Vance Phillips said he, too, had concerns about extending the time between the hearings. “Oftentimes we defer or leave the public record open for specific evidence. That can overlap with the 45 days. It could easily be a lot more than 60 days.

“We don’t vote until we have P&Z’s findings and recommendations. It would seem that the application should be argued on the merits of the application, and then the public has an opportunity to voice their opinions,” he said.

“Does it become a matter of the public debating beyond that? Does it turn into a public debate of P&Z’s thought processes and decisions?” he asked. “That’s the only reason it would seem to me that we would want to delay it. Everything else is already on the table.”

In addition to more time for the public to learn about applications and offer comment, Cole noted that he had made the point in past that would like to have staff and P&Z input.

“Are you saying the P&Z should influence our vote?” asked Wilson.

“We appoint them. They are part of the process,” Cole replied. “We’re not supposed to make a move until they’ve made their recommendation. I didn’t say we had to follow their recommendations.”

“You’re getting close to it,” Wilson said.

Councilman Michael Vincent said he was concerned about the potential to add even more materials for council members to consider during the course of a hearing.

“We walk in here and we have a book method. So we’re going to add time on the hearings, and there’s no way I’m going to sit here and have a book that thick that I’m never going to read,” Vincent said of the related materials council members generally read during the hearings. “And we’re going to 60 days now, and it’s going to be that much thicker.”

“We can still defer,” Deaver replied. “The overlap is the problem.”

Deaver advocated a change to the process in the near future, as the county is already scheduling public hearings in November. But other council members favored a slower approach. Vincent requested the council ask for staff recommendations on ways to make the process “smoother and more efficient,” and the consensus supported that move.

Also on Oct. 6:

• The council voted 4-0, with Deaver abstaining, not to implement a previously approved cost-savings effort that would have required spouses of county employees who are offered health insurance through their own employers to use that insurance rather than be insured through the county. Enforcement issues and comparatively little cost recovery were cited.

• The council voted unanimously to move to a bi-weekly pay schedule for all county employees, starting in April 2010, to reduce payroll costs. County paramedics are paid bi-weekly already. The change will mean more, but smaller paychecks for the county’s other employees, who have been getting paid twice a month. There will be no change in those employees’ gross pay.