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Council reins in commission’s efforts to revise building codes

Posted: Friday, Apr 20th, 2007

Planning commission is asked to report to council before

proposing changes.

On Monday night city council members threw up a road block to slow a major project the town’s planning commission has been running with for almost two years.

The Florence planning commission has been reviewing, revising and updating city land use and development codes chapter by chapter. Its goal originally was to update rules, simplify language, delete redundancies and correct contradictions in the outdated set of rules for builders and contractors. Mayor Phil Brubaker called for intervention to check changes the commission will be proposing.

Without mentioning specific concerns, Brubaker said in the April 16 council meeting that “the revision gives the impression that its overall effect is to restrict development.”

“Some of the policy issues may have economic repercussions,” he said. “This is not a comprehensive plan amendment, but development code that has far-reaching implications.”

Other councilors agreed with Brubaker.

“It has a lot more teeth than what I was expecting,” said Nola Xavier, council president. “Since we’ve waited this long, then we have to take the time to go through it one more time and be sure it’s really what we intended.”

The commission has been working with consultant Scott Siegel to align Florence codes with a model that has been created for similar cities. The second draft landed in councilors’ and commissioners’ hands at the end of last week, allowing only a cursory preview. Commissioners were set to begin a first review of their handiwork at a work session on Wednesday evening.

Four of the five city council members showed up for that work session, in general calling for an explanation of the bases for the changes.

Councilman Alan Burns opened the discussions, saying that he has noted some changes with which he totally disagrees and “some changes that I just cannot fathom the city doing unless the city manager is going to hire two or three more people” to handle enforcement, he said.

Burns, as well as Councilman Paul Holman, focused on landscaping codes, particularly the proposal for codes that require preservation of native rhododendrons, a code Burns feels is not practical or easily enforceable.

Holman’s concern was that the rhody codes would be cumbersome to homeowners, and that the largest populations of the plant are already the city’s responsibility because they’re growing on city property.

The draft proposal to protect native rhodies directs developers to preserve a certain number of plants at building sites and for the city to follow up at intervals to ensure the plants survive. The new rules would apply to major developments where clearing and excavation might require massive destruction of the native plants.

“I think it’s pretty well established that developers won’t be considerate of the rhodies,” Commissioner Clarence Lysdale said. Lysdale crafted many of the proposed codes for protecting the plant.

Xavier, also at the work session, did not enumerate specific concerns, but spoke for Mayor Brubaker.

“The mayor has asked that city staff prepare for each of your work sessions a list of the things that are contained in the section that are actual policy decisions,” Xavier said to the planning commissioners.

“If you are proposing a new policy,” Xavier explained, “that becomes something we want defined clearly, to let the council look at that and weigh in before we get too far down the line.”

City Council has final say on all changes that are made to the codes, after both the planning commission and council hold public hearings that allow citizens to comment. A public forum also is planned for September, so there will be plenty of opportunities for open debate.

“I’m a little confused about making policy change versus changing the code,” Planning Commission Chairwoman Donna Lee said after the meeting. “It was understood that the planning commission was going to review, make changes after public review, and then turn it over to the council. They make the final changes.”

“The revisions are based on what we’ve been facing all these years,” she said. “We haven’t heard anything from developers complaining about cost. We get very little to no correspondence from any of the developers.”

Lee said, “We are trying to (create) a vision of what the people want.”

Now Lee says she questions whether the planning commission is hearing from the same people city council hears from.

“I’m a little surprised they (city council members) want to be so involved at this point,” Lee added. During Wednesday’s work session, Lee welcomed the council’s comments, but asked them to be specific about their concerns.

Lee acknowledges that much work still lies ahead for the commission and said she intends to work for full consensus among the group.

“There are still changes we have to make to make the codes match the city’s comprehensive plan,” she said.

In a recent interview, Councilman Burns commented, “I don’t think we have to write new codes. Enforcing the old codes would accomplish the same thing.”

Burns added that he wants to see the codes evenly applied.

“We have good rules in place, but we have to stay on top of those things. … These codes should eliminate as much as possible personal interpretations.”

Gary Armstrong, a Florence resident who attended both the city council meeting and the planning work session this past week, commented: “It appears that (the work of) our planning commissioners and the public to create codes to preserve them, Florenc’s rhodies and native greenery are still under threat of extinction, this time by our mayor and city council who apprently feel it might be a burden on developers to save them instead of just ‘clear cutting’ their new projects into our town like they do now.”

Armstrong will be coordinating a citizen effort to generate support for the code revisions.

In the coming months, the commissioners will continue holding work sessions that are open to the public and they invite comments and testimony regarding city codes and the draft revision.

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