Publiccomment on hearing examiner sought

Published on Thu, Aug 16, 2007 by ara Nelson

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Public comment on hearing examiner sought

By Tara Nelson

Blaine residents concerned about a new proposal to delegate certain land-use decisions to the city hearing examiner can submit their written comments to the Blaine planning department by 4:30 p.m. Friday, August 17.

In their regular meeting Monday, Blaine City Council voted unanimously to postpone the original deadline after a flood of emails and written testimony from Blaine residents concerned about the revision.

The amendment proposed by the city last June would streamline the public planning process by eliminating the need for a project’s final approval by city council and expand the role of the city’s hearing examiner to include the review of most residential development applications of less than 25 lots and most commercial development of less than 50,000-square feet.

It would also eliminate the city council from the appeals process and require appellants to appeal a final decision directly to superior court.
Under the Blaine municipal code, the planning commission is charged to make recommendations for project proposals to the council following a public review process.

The current role of the hearing examiner is limited to hearing appeals of administrative decisions made by city development staff.
“Seven heads are better than one,” said Ron Synder, who lives on Sweet Road, just outside of Blaine during an August 9 planning commission meeting. “Especially when those seven individuals are volunteers and have a vested interest in the community. If you need the expertise, hire on at an hourly rate or have the commission form an advisory committee to look at it and report back to the commission.”

Former Blaine planning commissioner Betty Nunamaker agreed.
“By having a planning commission made up of several different people, offering a variety of viewpoints, it will ensure a more balanced and equitable process in making important decisions regarding the direction of our city,” she wrote in a letter to the city. “Having only one single, paid, hearing examiner do the work of the city manager, city planner and economic developer has serious implications with respect to the future development of Blaine and those who live here.”

Galvin, meanwhile, said the amendment will save time by allowing the planning commission to focus on more long-range planning such as hearings and meetings necessary to make recommendations to the city council on land use code and comprehensive plan amendments.

He added that the hearing examiner’s expertise in land-use law could also prevent future lawsuits against the city.

“We’ve been bogged down for the past couple of years and we’ve been understaffed, in addition,” he said. “By freeing up the planning commission to concentrate on legislative aspects of planning, they can play a very important role in setting policy that guides the way for development over the next 20 years.”

Whatcom County Council member Sam Crawford, said he thought the proposed amendment could be a benefit to the volunteer planning commission as it would free up much of their time to work more on long-range planning.

Crawford, however, expressed some concern over the proposed appeals process in which appellants would be sent directly to the superior court as opposed to the city council, calling the process “extreme, not to mention expensive.”

“The finality of a hearing examiner decision, with no recourse directly to the legislators in an appeal process, seems strange,” he said in an email to Blaine resident Jo Slivinski obtained by The Northern Light. “I would think the city council members would certainly want to hear appeals, if for no other reason to ensure their legislative intent is being carried out by the hearing examiner.”

Written public testimony may be submitted to Tom Black at tblack@cityofblaine.com Fax: 543-9978 or drop by the community development department at city hall.

The Blaine Planning Commission has also scheduled an additional work session on the proposed changes for 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, August 29 to review the public record and formulate a recommendation to the city council.