Planning Commission/Trustees Clash Over Outside Consultant Services
The role of volunteer committees, and how much influence they should have in regulating town policies and in dealing with permit applications, hit center stage again last week during a public workshop in Green Mountain Falls.
A joint board of trustee and planning commission meeting last week turned into a lively debate over outside consultant services and how much say should be given to a group of volunteers, bringing back memories of heated discussions that were often aired during the previous administration. It also retriggered an ongoing debate over an apparent controversial subject in GMF: Should volunteers play a defining role in running the town?
At issue immediately is whether the town wants to employ an outside consultant to handle its planning duties, along with using the help of former planner Julia Simmons. Simmons served as the town planner from 2019 to 2021. During last week’s meeting, Simmons noted that she is willing to assist the town in the planning arena, and noted that she is well-versed in understanding the concerns of local residents from her previous involvement with the town.
Via Zoom, the trustees and planners also heard a presentation by the Denver-based firm of the McCool Development Solutions, a multi-disciplinary land use consulting firm that specializes in providing community planning and development solutions to both public and private sector clients throughout the West. Town officials have favored contracting out services with the firm of the McCool Development for doing major site plans, rezoning, variances, minor and special projects and pre-application meetings with applicants. Carrie McCool, the founder of the company, made an online presentation at last week’s meeting, and highlighted their involvement with many small communities, such as Green Mountain Falls. She said recent employment trends have resulted in the loss of government planners for municipalities and counties.
According to McCool, the combined use of their company’s services, and with the assistance Simmons for smaller projects, could work well for GMF.
But the use of outside consultants, with high fees, triggered concerns by several commission members and even trustees. Planning Commission Chairman Lamar Mathews raised a red flag over costs, and noted that the town only has $10,000 appropriated this year for planning services.
“This would be a major increase (in fees), blasted Mathews, who questioned the use of the McCool services for nearly all of the town’s planning needs. “It would be very difficult to cover our costs. The commission does not want to pass on high expenses to our citizens.”
Mathews and several commission members present at last week’s meeting proposed having the commission handle some of the smaller application tasks, and then refer the more complex projects over to Simmons and the McCool group.
Conflict of Interest Concerns Voiced
But this idea got a skeptical review by Mayor Todd Dixon and town officials. “I want the planning commission out of the permitting,” said the mayor, who cited this as one of the big conclusions of the town’s updated land use code, with the new process calling for the staff to take a more defined role in handling administrative decisions.
Town Manager Becky Frank agreed, and believes the commission is overplaying the concerns over potential costs, with these expenses getting paid mostly by applicants and developers. Under the town’s proposal, the staff could take the lead role in the planning arena, with the assistance of contract services that use both Simmons and the McCool Development Solutions. She noted, “The town is a customer service organization. “
The town manager argued that using planning commissioners to process applications could raise conflict of interest concerns. “We don’t want to put them in a position to review applications,” said Frank. “That keeps the planning commission in a safer position.”
That way too, the commission members could make decisions on applications without recusing themselves, explained Frank.
But not all trustees and planning commissioners were on board with this concept, as the issue of taking volunteers out of the process come back into play. Trustee Nick Donzello questioned taking planning commissioners out of the approval process altogether, saying “They are getting blackballed out the game They are pretty capable.”
In addition, he believes that commission members, indeed, “have skin in the game.”
Trustee Sean Ives agreed, saying there has been a growing trend in GMF to separate committees and boards from representing the citizens.
However, in a cautionary note, Trustee Katharine Guthrie, the most senior member of the panel, favored not letting the planning commission take on permit applications. “I appreciate saving money, but there is more at stake here,” said Guthrie.
Despite the clashing views, all members of the commission and board agreed in the need to develop and a simple and stream-lined process for more basic requests, such as remodeling, and constructing decks, building fences and doing simple residential additions.
The forum ended with officials seeking more information on the costs of basic projects the town would face in the planning arena, and what consultants would specifically charge for their services for these projects. One plan proposed by McCool that raised a red flag last week dealt with the development of a retainer-fee arrangement for applicants, similar to what is charged by a law firm. Trustees and commissioners contended that this is way too complex and sends a bad message to the community.
Following last week’s meeting, Dixon said he doesn’t expect a final decision on this issue for several months.