Planning board gets refresher course in procedures

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By Staff Brunswick Beacon

SHALLOTTE—Planning board members want to know how to better perform their duties, and on Tuesday, Penny Tysinger of the Cape Fear Council of Government told them to look at all options when making decisions and always be consistent.

Tysinger met with board members at town hall during a special workshop to discuss the planning board’s role in the town and its procedures for making decisions.

“We have several things coming up within next six months, especially the vision plan,” board Chairman Dennis Winters told Tysinger.

“Two or three committees are working hard [on decisions] and are close to being finished. Cindy [Babson] is doing a great job helping out with those. At the same time, there are some things on the list that we have put off.”

Tysinger suggested taking a more “proactive approach” to planning.

“When you don’t have pressing agenda items driven by public, there may be projects you want to work on,” she said. “Nothing would be wrong with forwarding those things on to the board and saying ‘these are things we want to work on,’” such as updating ordinances.

Tysinger said a good time to present a list of projects is in January when new board members are sworn in. She said she would be willing to assist with a brainstorming session to facilitate the process.

Board members told Tysinger they have had as many as 10 or 12 items on an agenda in the past, but with the downturn in the economy, they are seeing less and less.

Winters said the slowdown may give board members a chance to discuss future projects.

“Now is a good time to talk about these things,” he said.

Advising board members on their decision-making process, Tysinger told them their first priority is to do what’s in the best interest of the town “even though you have your individual expertise, and even though you may know a property owner coming before you.”

“Sometimes I think boards get confused with that,” she said. “They think ‘I’m on here because I like all development or 20-story buildings’ or ‘I like open space. I’m a conservationist.’

“That’s an expertise you bring to the board, but that’s not the way you have to look at all applications.”

Tysinger advised the board members to listen to what all the people involved have to say and make the best decision based on the facts and the town ordinances.

Board member Gene Vasile agreed, saying specific standards are needed.

“Unless we have standards on which we base our decision-making, we’re always open to inconsistency, especially if we’re making decisions based on the personality of the presenter rather than actual facts.”

He asked where those standards are found.

Tysinger responded that ordinances, land-use plans, sources of law including the state and U.S. Constitutions are the standards.

“The main thing you have to focus on are your local plans and local ordinances,” she said.

Board member Ted Narazinski asked about unwittingly creating hardships.

“While it may be in the best interest of the entire town, you really can’t do such a thing because some people will be hardshipped by it. … When you say the best interest, I’m not sure it can always be done.”

Tysinger warned him that the board will never please everyone all the time, but the board has to look at who is most affected.

“If there’s a group here that has an issue and a group there that has a different issue, look at the ordinance. Maybe we need to create a multi-tier thing.

“That’s why I wouldn’t rush you to adopt ordinances. Look at all the pros and cons of the issue first.”

Asked about whether the board should be flexible or rigid, Tysinger responded that the board can always take a second look at an issue.

Still, she urged board members not to rush into every decision.

“Don’t drag it out just for the heck of it,” she said. “But have staff present you with a request and give you all the facts, the types of laws, sources, ordinances behind you.

“I always encourage towns to do things in baby steps. Don’t go from no landscaping [requirements] to detailing the types of plants to plant.”

Vasile then asked for reasons the board should consider voting to recommend rezoning requests.

Tysinger said to consider the town’s land-use plan for that area, what uses the new zoning district would allow, listen to staff recommendations and consider the worst-case scenario before deciding.

The number-one thing not to do is to get “caught up” in a developer promising a beautiful new development for the area.

“You throw all that out the door and tell him ‘We can’t base our decision on that.’ That’s illegal. It’s called contract zoning.”

The only thing the board can do is consider what the new zone would allow.

“[The development] is only one of many uses,” Tysinger said. “He could come in tomorrow and sell that land and do none of the things he gave you pictures of, and you can’t do anything about it.”

She explained that the board’s role is not to make decisions but to act as an advisory panel. If the board members can’t handle that, they should resign.

“You are the first public defense line,” she said. “If an issue is controversial you’re going to fill the room with people for and against it. You will get that raw emotion when it’s controversial, and for all that abuse, you get to make a recommendation. That’s all you do.”

She also urged the planning board to stick with its attendance rules and to communicate regularly with the town board of aldermen.

The planning board meets the second Tuesday of each month.