County codes ‘speak’ debated

Homeowners who want to build an addition or otherwise work on their property have no call to be perplexed by county planning regulations, because those rules are written in a way that is “clear and not subject to misinterpretation,” the county Planning and Building Department says.

The department made the comment in response to the civil grand jury, whose report in June called county planning regulations “inordinately complicated, difficult, conflicting and almost impossible to understand by the public.”

The Board of Supervisors last week briefly considered both the grand jury report and the county response. The board pulled the item from its agenda so planners could further tweak their comments.

The focus of the grand jury complaint was actually the Subdivision Review Board, a group of planners and others created in the 1990s to take pressure off the overworked county Planning Commission by handling lesser matters.

But the grand jury suggested that the faceless SRB has been deciding land-use matters that should go to the Planning Commission, whose five members are appointed by the elected supervisors and thus are more accountable.

“The potential exists for decisions made by the SRB to be influenced by the Planning Department,” the grand jury wrote.

The Planning Department rejected# that accusation as well, noting that the SRB consists of not only planners, but also representatives of other agencies, such as the Department of Public Works.

The grand jury’s comments on language echoed a complaint voiced frequently by members of the public who go to the county to get permits to install wiring, add a porch or do other projects at their homes.

But applicants are not the only ones who can become confused, the grand jury wrote; the county’s planning language is so bewildering at times that individual planners can draw different conclusions.

Former Planning Commissioner Sarah Christie echoed those remarks.

“They go out of their way to write those policies in a way that is indecipherable, so that it can be interpreted in an infinite number of ways,” she said.

County Supervisor Bruce Gibson, who asked that the grand jury item be withdrawn from consideration last week, said he understands the criticism, confusion and “general frustration” but added that the Planning Department has been working to make things understandable to the general public.

He said the county has created “plain language” brochures explaining the planning process and holds pre-application conferences with applicants.

Gibson said he disagrees that county ordinances contradict one another, as the grand jury wrote. He said the grand jury was displaying an “incomplete understanding” of the Subdivision Review Board.

“I trust the general professionalism of our planners,” Gibson added. He noted that those who disagree with an SRB decision can appeal it to the Board of Supervisors.

The county is not bound to comply with civil grand jury recommendations but must by law respond to them.