by Rose Murphy, Bull Run Observer

30 December 2011, p. 11

“Prince William  Board of County Supervisors is streamlining some of its public hearings.  Some officials contacted think it’s a good idea.  Others in the community are stressing caution.

“Starting in October, land use applications with no unresolved issues, and with recommendations of approval from the county’s planning staff, planning commission and the supervisor in whose district the land is located, may have a consolidated public hearing.

“Each case still would have a public hearing, but no staff report or attorney’s presentation would be needed.  The applicant’s attorney and county staff members would be present to answer questions, and the public still would be able to comment on the case during the hearing.

“Chris Price, county planning director, reported Dec. 19 that he is happy with the new process, and that ‘it’s working well, but we’re always open to suggestions.’  The new process allows staff to devote time to the cases that need more attention, he pointed out.

“Martin Jeter, president of Mid-County Civic Association (MIDCO) said that with consolidated public hearings, ‘the devil’s in the details.’

” ‘In some cases, it will probably work fine, but when you combine that with the inadequate notification…and the likely rescinding of the state requirement for newspaper notification on public hearings, it may result in more items “slipping through the cracks.”  Even with the new procedure, a citizen can attend a BOCS (board of county supervisors) meeting and request the full presentation, but they need to know about the project in the first place before they can attend the meeting,’  Jeter said in a Dec. 14 e-mail.

“The notification he was referring to is the county’s telling residents of a land application if they live within 200 feet of the property owner requesting the change.  Jeter suggests the 200 feet should be 500 feet, ‘at least in mid-county.  This is a no-brainer.  The cost is low, according to county figures…’  He added the 200-foot distance is inadequate in mid-county, due to larger lot sizes, ‘and there’s nothing stopping the county from implementing it.  The cost could be passed through to the applicant.’

“Price explained state code only says adjacent landowners must be notified of land applications, and that the county has set 200 feet as the minimum area of notification.

“Jeter added that ‘time after time at MIDCO meetings (people say they) had no idea what was planned near their house, even with the current notification system.’  He said a wider notification system ‘would go a long way to keep folks informed.  The best county web site and hearing procedure in the world won’t help anyone if they don’t get that first indicator that something’s happening in their area.’

“The newspaper notification Jeter mentioned is a proposal in the Virginia General Assembly which would remove legal notices from newspapers of general circulation in the local governmental jurisdiction where the property is located and allow them to appear on the local government’s web site.

“Gary Friedman said Dec. 16 that he is not well enough informed on the specifics of the new consolidated public hearing process to comment.  He was a member of the county’s planning commission until last month.

” ‘However, I am very concerned that on land use matters, the general direction the board has been taking over the last few years has been to try to marginalize citizen input as much as possible, (except for orchestrated spectacles like the Avendale fiasco), while riding roughshod over whatever input they do get.  It seems that for the last two or three years, the board only cares about what developers want on land use matters and all other input is pretty much ignored.  A troubling development to be sure.  It is my understanding that the board is poised to appoint two developers to the planning commission.  If so, this would be unprecedented and a recipe for much mischief, an ominous indicator for the county’s future,’ Friedman opined.

“Corey Stewart, chairman of the board of supervisors, called the consolidated public hearing idea ‘a good thing.  It gives us time to work on the more complex land use issues and dispense with the easier ones.’  He added the new process saves time not only for the board, but also for staff.

“Mike May, who represents Occoquan District on the board of supervisors, said the new consolidated process is functioning well.

” ‘There is still an opportunity for public comment, and any supervisor has the right to request a full presentation in the event there are community issues or concerns.  However, the board should certainly err on the side of caution and allow for a full presentation whenever such issues or concerns arise,’ May explained.

“On the 200-foot notification issue, May pointed out that practice ‘works better in high density areas where there are many people within 200 feet of a proposed project.  However, in lower density areas, there may be instances in which very few people reside within 200 feet of the proposed project.  Moreover, as a general matter, land use decisions impact all of us, not just those who are 200 feet away.’

“May added the board is working on some procedural changes ‘to improve transparency in this area.’

” ‘For example, we recently initiated a zoning text amendment (ZTA) to require that any off-site property that may be impacted by proffers or conditions be notified of the proposal, even if the potentially impacted property is beyond 200 feet away,’ he noted.  Price said a ZTA would go to the board for its consideration after the first of the year.

“May asserted that, regardless of official notification, it is the responsibility of each supervisor to keep his constituents informed of land use updates in their neighborhoods.

“Marty Nohe, Coles representative on the board of supervisors, reported that at first, he was ‘reluctant’ on consolidated public hearings because he didn’t want to send a message that the board was avoiding public comment.  He said that he’s come to see it as a benefit to staff and the board and that it will work as long as the board is cautious and uses it as a means to reduce bureaucracy.

“Nohe estimates landowners will be more careful in preparing their land use applications in order to get them on the consolidated agenda.

” ‘It incentivizes excellence and gives the owner a real incentive to get all his ducks in a row,’ he contended.

“Nohe asserted that too much information could result in a lack of transparency on an issue.

“Wally Covington reports he’s received no negative comments on consolidated public hearings.  He represents Brentsville District on the board of supervisors.  He noted the county’s planning commission has had an expedited agenda ‘for quite awhile, but pulls things off a lot’ to consider them.

“Ron Burgess, Brentsville’s planning commissioner, said he’s agreeable with the board’s consolidated public hearing policy if it’s similar to the planning commission’s.  He noted any commissioner could pull an expedited item off the planning commission’s agenda.”