Sunday, March 05, 2006

PC - The Process And More - 2/28/06

The Planning Commission (PC) Workshop on 2/28/06 was all about "how the process works." It was an excellent session an offered much insight into how projects move through the Township system.

Solicitor Karl Kline began the meeting with a presentation on the legal requirements of the Municipal Planning Code (MPC). He summarized the guidelines of what Township officials can and cannot do. Of zoning, he said that it is the right of a municipality to control what people do with their property.

The Subdivision and Land Development Ordinance (SALDO) plays an important role too. Developers must comply with it as well as with the Zoning Ordinance. In the area of land development, a municipality only has such power as is given it by the State legislature. The Township PC and BoS are required to follow the MCP as well as the Township’s Zoning Ordinance. If a particular plan follows the Ordinance, it must be approved, like it or not. It cannot be rejected. However, the ordinance can be amended (for the future.)

Planner Chuss said that he thought that if a plan was not good for the health, safety, and welfare of the community that it can be rejected. Kline said the decision would be rejected by the courts especially if the plan meets the ordinance in all ways.

Some of the rules that guide the process include:
  • All applications must be acted on within 90 days. Forks "clock" is watched by Zoning Officer Tim Weis. It begins ticking on the date of the first PC meeting after plan submission.
  • The Township cannot grant time extensions. The developer grants them. The Township can only accept or reject them.
  • If a project is being denied, specific defects must be described in writing. Ordinance sections must be cited. If this does not happen, then the project is "deemed approved."
  • During the Preliminary Plan stage, if conditions are set and the developer meets the conditions, the developer then has vested rights. The Township cannot impose additional conditions at the Final Plan stage.
  • The Township must follow the MPC and the Zoning Ordinance. If the Township’s ruling is disputed in court and the Township has followed the proper procedure and treated the developer in a fair manner, it will likely win (in court). Kline said, "The Township wins the ties."
  • The Township engineer does a full review of all plans and as a result, gives ammunition to the Township. Bias is shown if there is no review.
  • If the Township does not follow the law, the courts can "deem" approval and reverse a rejection.
  • Normally a municipality has immunity and members of the BoS and the PC have "official" immunity if they have tried to apply the law (even if in the end, they were wrong.) However, if they acted willfully in violation of the law, they are on their own and subject to suit.
  • The PC makes recommendations to the BoS. Ultimately decisions are made by the BoS.
  • Plans will now be signed before meetings.

Supervisor David Howell remarked that the Township has no "planning department" and that there has been no aesthetic planning. He noted that there is no continuity of styles.

Chuss asked why Williams Township is not having the rapid development issues that Forks is having. Sewers! He was told that it’s because of sewers. Forks has them. In Forks the last undeveloped land is in the FP (Farmland Preservation) district. It does not have sewer lines. It is the new battleground.

According to Kline, Forks hodgepodge of developments is due to the fact that thirty years ago the Township did not have a fully developed road plan. Developers have come in and said, "Where do you want the roads?"

Planner Jim Wideman asked when the review would be completed for the Kings Mill plan. Hay replied that it’s so big it will take months and that he is going to ask the developer to grant an extension. Hay said that normally letters go back and forth between his office and the developers’ engineers. Wideman asked to be given copies of technical review letters. Hay said that he would provide them to him. They will not be discussed at meetings. Hay did want to know why Wideman wanted them. Wideman replied that he can make more intelligent decisions when he has more information. Tamborrino said that technically the things going back and forth between Hays’ office and developers are not part of public records. Weis said that it’s not something his office has to retain records for. Howell disagreed. He said that he thought they were public records. It was resolved that copies will be kept in the Municipal Building and that anyone can come and see them at any time.

Kline referred to a memo that he sent to the PC members reminding them that all deliberations must be made at public meetings or they risk violating the Sunshine Law. Tamborrino said that he asked Kline to "research" that. The memo cautioned against email use in such a way that it would involve a quorum. Email to less than a quorum is okay. It’s also okay for the PC to have a "committee" of less than a quorum to look at a project and to come up with recommendations.

Howell noted that the PC pre-meetings approach the appearance of a violation (Sunshine Law) because they are held in an interior room in the building that the public can not easily attend. He said that the BoS does not do that and that the PC should not either. Kline said that he has always been uncomfortable with it and that it is open to the public. He then said that it’s just as well, and that the meetings should simply start at 7:00 PM in the main room.

There are Monday staff meetings with Engineer Hay, Township Manager Kichline, Zoning Officer Weis, and PC Chairman Tamborrino. Tamborrino said that he writes the PC agendas. Planner Erik Chuss asked that workshop agendas be available online (like regular meeting agendas are.)

Weis gave his summary of the process and added some changes going forward:

  • Submission deadlines are 15 days before a PC meeting.
  • The submission dates for the entire year are now (or soon will be) posted on
  • If the plan submission meets the deadline it is added to the PC agenda as new business.
  • "New business" in the past has been automatically tabled. It was accepted for "review." This bought the Township an extra 30 days. Today, if the new business section is small, one item or so, Hay may be able to review it in the 15 days before the meeting.
  • New submissions (without review letters) are in the PC meeting packets.
  • It was suggested that developers appear at meetings right after plan submissions to explain their plans in 10 or 15 minute presentations. In order to mandate that though, the SALDO must be revised. The submission requirements are in the SALDO. In fact, Hay recommended that the PC do the SALDO next.

    Wideman said that he would like a list of all projects that are tabled and not on the agenda. Weis said that he is working on a spreadsheet (for the website) of all the current projects and their status - when they were submitted, if they are under review, if they were approved, and when they went to the BoS.

    It was also suggested that the Comprehensive Plan be redone. This rewrite will probably start in the fall. It was recommended that Charlie Schmehl be re-hired to work with the PC. Chuss discussed how many Forks residents came forward to work on the Comprehensive Plan the last time it was redone. Howell added that the Community Relations Committee can be helpful in marshaling surveys, public awareness, and public comment. He added that if the PC wants his committee to help though, the plans have to be spelled out as he doesn’t want to "rent a hall and have no one show up." Howell suggested that the soon-to-be rejuvenated newsletter may be a good way to get the word out to the public. A motion was made to recommend to the BoS that the PC update the Comp Plan and another to hire Schmehl to help. Both motions passed.

    Tamborrino said that the EASD has asked that they be given copies of plans as they come in so that they can make comments. They want to be part of the process. Kline noted that the State Legislature has given no authority to school districts in the planning process. It was decided that copies of plans will be sent as they come in.

    Howell said that something stuck with him that Chuss said some time ago about conduct for the Planners. Howell asked if any of them get calls from developers during the "normal course" and if so, do they discuss them amongst themselves? He wondered if they have some code of conduct for it. Howell said that he has gotten calls and he tells Kline. Chuss said he’s never been contacted and raised the issue a while back because of "meetings." He added that the only meetings he knows about are the PC ones. He then said that he was laughed at by a neighbor who asked him about the Kings Mill project last summer after it appeared in the paper and he knew nothing about it. Hay said it was a "staff" meeting. Chuss said the some PC members were invited. He said that his phone rang for another three days with calls from people wanting to know what was going on.

    Tamborrino said that in NJ (he said that he put on his architect’s hat for this) PC members will meet with him when he wants to discuss a concept for a plan. Wideman said that he thinks it’s inappropriate. Kline said that it’s dangerous if someone from the PC or the Board meets one-on-one with a developer. He added that with the staff, the "staff don’t vote." Kline said that as long as there is less than quorum it’s not illegal. Chuss suggested that whoever goes to a developer’s meeting should at least let the rest of the PC know.

    Howell asked if there should be a "planning" committee created - staff members, a PC member, a Supervisor, an outside citizen - to seek out the types of development the Township wants. Chuss told of Harvel Plastics looking for a location for a second plant and how he was told that Forks actually discourages businesses from coming here - that other communities court them.

    The next PC workshop will continue where this one left off. It was a valuable session for everyone. The next should be also.

    Our objective is to relate what is experienced at Forks Township meetings for those who cannot attend. We are attempting to be as factual as we can. If we make a mistake,
    tell us via email or COMMENT here in the blog, and we will do our best to correct it. We are not perfect.

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