09/16/09 — Citizens question county commission motives on subdivision oversight

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Citizens question county commission motives on subdivision oversight

By Steve Herring
Published in News on September 16, 2009 1:46 PM

Wayne County commissioners were told by two speakers at their Tuesday morning public hearing on proposed changes to the county's subdivision ordinance that the board could not be trusted to keep politics out of its subdivision decisions should it take on that power.

Commissioners were questioned as to why they decided to change an ordinance that has worked for more than 40 years -- and were taken to task for denying the Planning Board's request to broadcast a video recording of a hearing last week on the same topic.

Commissioners did not comment and took no action following the roughly 20-minute hearing during which four people spoke in opposition to the proposal. Afterwards, Chairman Bud Gray said a committee would review the proposal that would give commissioners final approval on all plats.

Serving with Gray on the committee are commissioners J.D. Evans and Andy Anderson, Planning Board members David Quick and Hattie Frederick, county attorney Borden Parker and county Planning Director Connie Price.

Under the proposal, the Planning Board would still review and make recommendations on plats, and commissioners would have the final say.

The Planning Board has recommended that Price approve final plats and also wants an appeals process to be triggered when a plat is approved by one board, but denied by the other. A committee consisting of three commissioners and three Planning Board members would make the review.

In addition, Planning Board members say that both boards should offer the reasoning behind any decision to deny a plat.

Neil Jurney of Goldsboro was blunt in his allegations "of backroom gutter politics by some of you on the board." Former commissioner Arnold Flowers also blasted the board for partisan votes.

"The Planning Board is an appointed board by commissioners, but if the board of commissioners takes control of the Planning Board you all are elected politically by party and in my opinion, politically gerrymandered districts," Flowers said. "Wayne County is controlled politically by the Democratic Party and has been since the Civil War. I am a Republican.

"The concern I have with this is if I bring a plat for consideration and it goes before the board of commissioners, and you are elected politically, then are you going to make a decision on my plat based on the ordinance that I have complied with before or are you going to make a political decision based on the fact that I am in an opposing party or that I come to board of commissioners' meeting and make public comments in opposition to what you are doing or that maybe I go to the wrong church; maybe I'm the wrong race or whatever reason other than the strength of the ordinance I based my subdivision on?"

Flowers said he would not be swayed by assurances that would not happen.

"I was here just a few weeks ago and I saw you make a political, in my opinion, decision based on Commissioner Steve Keen's proposed subdivision," Flowers said. "His subdivision was in compliance with the ordinances in my opinion. Steve is a friend of mine, as all of you are. We (Flowers and Keen) are in the same political party. But that is not the point of me making this comment -- in my opinion I saw the five Democrats on this board make a political decision in regards to his subdivision."

He said commissioners had alluded to a previous vote on a development by John Bell, not the commissioner, that was not an "apples-to-apples" comparison.

"You alluded to turning that man (Bell) down so we have to turn him (Keen) down," Flowers said. "Does that mean you are going to turn down all subdivisions in the future?"

The vote taken by commissioners concerning Keen was not on a subdivision. It was on a rezoning petition for property he owns in the Rosewood area.

Nor was there a vote on the Bell project. Bell had initially sought the county's endorsement of his low-to-moderate income project to qualify for grant funding. Commissioners took no action and referred it to the Planning Board. Bell later withdrew his request following a firestorm of protest in the Rosewood community.

He proceeded on his own, but earlier this summer dropped the project after being told that the application had been denied.

Flowers told commissioners that if they were not satisfied with the Planning Board in its current state then a better solution would be to make changes there.

Flowers said every board or committee he has ever been on has one or two dominating personalities. The board, he said, is five Democrats and two Republicans.

"I do not mean disrespect but you (Republicans) don't get a vote. You are tokens," he said.

There are domineering ones among the five, he said.

"What I am saying is that the vote might not even be made by those five and Mr. (Commissioner John) Bell, as you like to point out, it only takes four votes," Flowers said. "What I am telling you is that out of those four there is going to be one or two domineering personalities. You get to a situation where only one or two people actually make the decision."

Flowers said he had watched the issue from the start and that it appears to have been infighting and personality conflicts.

"If you are not happy with the current membership of Planning Board then appoint somebody else," he said.

He also pointed out that commissioners can rewrite points of the ordinance.

Flowers said he was concerned as well that additional levels of government involvement add to the expenses.

Former commissioner George Wolfe, Steve Herring of the Grantham community and Jurney both said the current system works well and does not need to be changed.

Herring and Jurney questioned commissioners as to why they had denied permission to broadcast last week's Planning Board public hearing.

Commissioners did not respond to the question, but after the hearing, County Manager Lee Smith said it was his understanding that it was part of the commissioners' wishes to be consistent in how meetings are televised. The hearing, he said, would be broadcast that night (Tuesday) and again Thursday night following the broadcasts of the commissioners' meeting.

"That was not part of my understanding," Keen said. "I had asked that it be shown Thursday and Saturday morning."

"I feel like if something is wrong with the subdivision ordinance, then let's fix that one particular item and not change the whole way things are gone about," Wolfe said.

Like Flowers, Wolfe said he was "scared" about political decisions.

Wolfe said in one recent zoning issue, a commissioner abstained from voting because of not having the facts. He said Commissioner Jack Best has property on an interchange and that Gray owns property on a potential interchange.

"I think you'd hate to get down to the last minute and all of sudden get denied or lose the right to develop that property because one or two commissioners didn't have the information, abstained and the vote went to the 'no's,'" Wolfe said.

Herring told commissioners that if the proposal is approved that they will "have gained power and lost the integrity of your office."

"I urge you do not disrupt our county," he added.