The Park Record editorial, March 19-22, 2011
March 18, 2011
Now that the smoke has cleared from the last hours of the Utah Legislative session, Summit County residents are learning about a new rule that will have a significant impact on local government.
HB 434, which has already been signed into law by the governor, was sponsored by Summit County’s own representative to the Legislature, Mel Brown (R-Coalville). It attempts to bring the county into compliance with an already-existing law that requires some planning commissioners be elected rather than appointed.
Apparently, Summit County’s two appointed planning commissions, one of which deals exclusively with development issues in the Snyderville Basin, and the other with issues on the East Side of the county, have been out of compliance with state law for more than a decade.
In the mid 1990s, when the single planning commission was overloaded with development applications, Summit County commissioners decided to streamline the process by creating two separate planning districts. The theory was that the needs and goals of the two sides of the county were sufficiently diverse to warrant their own boards. However, in doing so, the commission inadvertently created two new political jurisdictions. According to law, those districts qualify as townships and are entitled to elected leadership.
Brown’s law gives Summit County until Jan. 1, 2012, to come into compliance. There are two ways to make that happen and neither one is as good as the system that is already in place.
The county can either re-combine the Basin and East Side planning districts under the auspices of one overarching panel, or it can keep them separate and hold elections for three of the seven members on each board.
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When the county had only one board and development was exploding in the Snyderville Basin, landowners on the East Side of the county had to wait for months until the board could review their applications, which were often smaller and simpler than the complex proposals submitted for the commercial projects and subdivisions surrounding Kimball Junction.
Separating the boards made sense. East Side applications moved much more quickly and were reviewed by peers, appointed by the county, who had a better understanding of their more rural culture. Conversely, on the West Side, where residents were clamoring for more growth controls, the Basin commissioners could take more time to work with applicants on ways to preserve open space and minimize the environmental and visual impacts of their projects.
The two boards are also given the latitude to craft distinct development codes that address their constituents’ priorities.
In light of that, it seems logical to maintain two planning commissions. But that means three members of each board will have to run for election. In our view, that would inject a level of political wrangling that would discourage participation from regular citizens who want to serve out of a sense of public service rather than private gain.
Elections are costly and politically charged. At the same time, planning commissioners are paid a minimal per diem reimbursement to undertake the grueling and often controversial task of approving and denying developments. Therefore, it seems unrealistic to expect people to conduct potentially expensive and contentious election campaigns for job with nominal pay and lots of stress unless, of course, they have something to gain from serving.
The county has a difficult decision to make, with no good alternatives.