Merits of hearings officer debated

The planning commission approved a series of amendments to the land use ordinance for recommendation to the city council at its meeting Tuesday night. If the procedural changes, which give more responsibility to planning staff, are implemented with positive results, they could help pave the way toward use of a hearings officer, commission members said.

The recommendations would allow staff to approve lower-level decisions, which could then be appealed to the planning commission for free. The current permit process requires applicants to appear before the commission for approval, using valuable time that outgoing Community Development Director David Stalheim said could be better directed toward long-term planning.

"In the last two meetings, I think we easily spent three to four hours on deliberations on issues that, in all due respect, shouldn't be in front of the planning commission," he told the commissioners.

Stalheim originally recommended not using a hearings officer, generally an attorney hired by the city to approve or deny small development issues. The city council and planning commission also considered the issue in 2003, but it failed in both bodies.

But during his short tenure in Ashland, Stalheim said he began to see the value of using a hearings officer as a temporary solution to expedite the planning process. He presented a list of other issues he felt would be a better use of the planning commission's 24 meetings per year, including economic development strategy, transportation planning, city visioning and sustainability goals.

Commissioner Dave Dotterrer was one of the three remaining members of the 2003 commission that rejected a hearings officer, and he said the changes approved at Tuesday's meeting made a strong case for such an officer.

"The longer I've been on the commission, the more I think it's something we should consider," he said. "I'd like to see what happens with the changes in the procedures we have now."

Commissioner Pam Marsh said the procedural changes could be viewed as a "test case," for a hearings officer, but would prefer to see a planner, and not an attorney, in the position. Before coming to Ashland, she lived in a city with a hearings officer in place.

"You think its expensive to do projects in this city?" she said. "You should see how expensive it was there."

Most cities pass the cost of an officer on to applicants, at an estimated average of $350 per application, Stalheim said.

Other commissioners said they doubted a hearings officer would help stimulate long-term planning.

"There seems to be a fundamental problem with vision, and I'm not sure it has to do with all the hearings we do," said Commissioner Michael Dawkins, citing the time spent on the downtown development plan that the city council asked the planning commission to develop and ultimately rejected.

He also likened planning to an art, something that would be lost with a hearings officer.

" going through projects the way we do, we get a feel for the way people in the community are speaking through us," he said. "It is a democratic process, and golly, democracy gets to be a messy process and can be very, very slow."

Stalheim suggested that the art of planning could be preserved through the creation of design review board for larger projects, with members coming from the planning commission as well as the historic and tree commissions.

The discussion was tabled until a further date.

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