Council sets public hearing to vote on hearing examiner

Published on Thu, Sep 27, 2007 by Tara Nelson

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Council sets public hearing to vote on hearing examiner

By Tara Nelson

Maintaining public input in the planning process was the central concern in a decision by the Blaine Planning Commission to withold support of an expanded hearing examiner amendment.

The move follows a amendment proposed by the city last June, which 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 type II residential development applications of less than 25 lots and commercial development of less than 50,000-square feet.

The amendment would also eliminate the city council from the appeals process and require appellants to appeal a final decision directly to superior court.

Proponents of the amendment, such as Blaine community development director Terry Galvin, said the proposal 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.

“This proposal is really about steering the ship by the steering wheel, rather than the rudder,” he said to the city council during their work session Monday. “We’re in a cycle where we’re trying to shape our community on a case-by-case basis and that’s not how long-range planning decisions should be made.”

Planning commission chair Jeff Arntzen, however, said planning commission members were unanimously opposed to the city staff’s recommendation to expand the hearing examiner role.

Under the current Blaine municipal code, the planning commission is charged to make recommendations for project proposals to the council following a public review process and the current role of the hearing examiner is limited to hearing appeals of administrative decisions made by city development staff.

Arntzen cited a report submitted to the council Monday that stated the commission was “fundamentally opposed” to two revisions to the to the Blaine municipal code that involved expanding the hearing examiner’s present role to include decisions on all type II land use decisions and requiring appeals to be heard by a superior court judge.

One of those reasons was the “overwhelming amount” of negative public testimony the commission recieved regarding the issue. He added that there were several misunderstandings in which people thought the proposal would disband the planning commission altogether.

“The feeling was that of our citizens want a public body to hear their concerns about land use decisions,” he said. “It’s part of what I sense as the public process and their role as citizens. There should be a body here to represent them and hear their concerns.”

Council member Ken Ely said he could see the value of both systems, but ultimately disagreed citing his lack of legal expertise.

“As a city council person, unless you’re willing to pay me $150,000 a year and have a legal staff to do my research for me, I would hate to have to do that,” he said. “It’s almost as bad as having to deal with water rights and it adds to the possibility of increase cost, time and liability.”
Planning commissioner Harry Robinson said while he agreed the new system would save council members time, they were not looking at the whole picture.

“Our situation involves the public and whether they have to come in front of the planning commission or a judge,” he said. “I’ve been on the planning commission for six or so years and we’ve finally created an environment where the public feels comfortable in coming forward. I don’t think we should just cut that off.”

Ely replied: “I can see how the situation could be daunting, but the issue here is not of how people feel, but equity under the law,” he said. “Those decisions are such that need a great deal of expertise and I would rather not deal with the issues of land use and water rights because I don’t feel I would be qualified no matter how long I’ve been on council.”

Blaine city manager Gary Tomsic said he would like to see if there was a way to relieve the burden of smaller land use decisions from the planning commission while still maintaining an accessible appeals process for the public.

“The question is, how can we have a hearings examiner and still maintain a process in which the citizens still feel comfortable,” he said. “Is it possible to have both?”

The council voted 5-0 to schedule a public hearing during their next regularly scheduled meeting at 7 p.m., October 8 at the Blaine council chambers. For more information, call 332-8311.

Other council news

Blaine City Council also voted 4-1 Monday to authorize a $50,000 loan to the Blaine municipal airport from the city’s general reserve fund.

The loan would pay for operational expenses and debt services that are due at the beginning of December, Blaine finance director Meredith Riley said.

Riley said to date, the airport has outstanding interfund loans of approximately $430,000 to the general fund reserve, with the most recent loan being taken at the end of 2006, in which the city had authorized $50,000. Since that time, the airport’s operating budget has used all of that money. Riley said she hoped the additional loan would carry the airport through until the end of 2007.

Ely asked if Riley predicted any additional loans before 2008.

“More than likely, we will have to do additional interfund loans,” she said.

Council member John Liebert asked if the airport has any revenue of its own and recalled his previous suggestion that the council disband the airport commission. He was the only council member to vote against the loan authorization.

“I’m going to vote against this again because I don’t know what the airport commission is doing to help alleviate this expense and if they’re not going to do anything to help alleviate this expense, then I don’t know what they’re doing,” he said.

Council member Jason Overstreet said he would like to see the council put more thought into developing a financial plan to close the airport, which is scheduled to stop functioning no later than December of 2008.

“We’re going to need some stop-debt financing,” he said. “We should schedule a work session now so we are not caught behind the curve. Starting now would give us good time to come up with that plan.”

Mayor Mike Myers said he agreed but that last Monday’s meeting was not the appropriate time to be discussing the isssue.

“We should schedule a work session if we want to discuss the issue more,” he said.