he holiday season is a busy time, as we all know. I didn’t want too much time to pass without commenting on the marathon Commissioners meeting last Monday night (Dec. 15, 2008), which didn’t end until 1 AM.
What could take so long you may wonder? Well, 26 agenda items, many controversial, takes a while to wade though imagine how long the meeting would have gone with a seven or nine member board! There was a closed session called at the outset and a number of public speakers, including the Scribe, who spoke to the Commissioners about the hot topics, the conflict of interest form and restructuring of the Planning and Board of Adjustment.
Disclosure – Mills does the same song and dance
The conflict of interest form (aka ‘financial disclosure’) raised quite a bit of rancor. Commissioners Mills and Baucom pounded the same tired arguments as they have, the last two times the Board examined this issue. First Mr. Mills mis-characterizes the form, pleads for Board to SLOW down, be reasonable and then asks questions which have little or nothing to do with the form.
As presented, the Conflict of Interest form asks the applicant to list the businesses that he/she own in Union County and secondly, property interests owned. Requiring a disclosure reveals to public scrutiny, potential conflicts that hereto now were kept obscured. Conflicts that in the past have colored the votes of many of Mills, Baucom and Pressley’s appointees, but those of past boards as well. To listen to Mr. Mills, you might wonder what a conflict of interest actually ‘is’, fortunately the state law is specific. See Owens: Conflict of Interest
Commissioners Mills and Baucom now and in past votes, spoke of how the forced disclosure would prevent qualified people from applying. Gaging the some of their choices, we can only hope. The prospect of an inquisitive press linking a Commissioner to the same LLC’s and LLP’s of their appointees would be worth the price of admission. Not to be nixonesque, but people have a right to know if their government and officials are corrupt.
Trust but verify Mr. Kerr. ((Planning Board member Don Kerr (of Union County 2020 PAC fame) in his comments to commissioners said the people you have to watch are those who don’t trust anyone. That goes on my list of 2008 most laughable comments))
The Great Township Debate redux
In April of 2007, the Baucom, Mills and Pressley commissioner majority reorganized the County Planning Board into appointment by township. ((In interest of fair disclosure, the reader is advised that the Scribe was a member of Union County’s Planning Board from 2005 to April of 2007)) How typical of Parker Mills to proclaim townships as the fairest means of representation, when the opposite is true. Parker is not alone, even well known Planning Board member made the same assertion during public comments.
What we are hearing is more a case of the old Union power structure trying to maintain control by equating acreage to population.
The following chart shows townships and the prevailing imbalance:
Reader Note: Three (3) townships account for 71% (48,977 dwellings) of the all the dwellings in Union County and have only 3 votes on the Planning Board and the remaining six (6) townships which only account for 28% (19,771 dwellings) have the majority or 6 votes on the board.
Not only are the townships of dissimilar geographic size, the population as measured by dwelling unit per township is even more disproportionate, further illustrating an effort by the past majority to magnify the influence of the special interests.
As further evidence of design and intent, the previous Planning Board had 3 newcomers as members; the current board has none. In fact, while professing the fairness of township-based appointments, Mr. Mills, ever the hypocrite, appointed two members who live in municipalities, flying the face of his own words when he argued that so much of western Union County is under municipal control, unincorporated Union County citizens were not represented.
Developer Friendly Commissioners begets
a developer friendly Planning Board – The Law of Crony and Effect.
In light of recent history, would you be surprised if I told you that the current Planning Board has not made a single decision that effects eastern Union County, ((Excluding subdivision authorization — there have been a few small subdivisions approved)) instead they have favored the developers and builders over Union County residents with votes to hobble the APFO ((Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance: Enacted in October 2006, requires adequate student capacity be available or in process before new subdivisions are authorized)) and tailor Union County’s cluster subdivision ordinance to maximize the developers profit margins, oftentimes on the backs of the taxpayers. (See Union County Debt per Capita)
In the last year, our Planning Board voted to move payment of the APFO mitigation fee from Building Permit (the beginning) to Certificate of Occupancy (the end) — the permit needed before closing with a buyer. Making this change completely defeats the purpose of the APFO, which was designed to time new development with available school capacity. The voluntary mitigation fee was meant as a safety valve, to allow the impatient builder/developer to buy school capacity in areas where some capacity was available.
Score this one for the builders. Builders 1, Homeowners 0.
Also this past year, the Planning Board voted a bonus for the subdivision developers when they removed the requirement that 50% of a subdivisions common area had to be out of the flood plain. This feature was designed to enhance the value to homeowners by requiring the developer to dedicate usable land for common area. Experience had demonstrated that some developers were buying non-buildable land to increase their density and then in turn, designating it as common area, oftentimes of limited use to the subdivision homeowners.
Score this one for the builders: Builders 2, Homeowners 0.
There’s more. The Planning Board voted to reduce the side, front and rear setbacks ((A Setback is the distance from the property line a structure can be placed. Current setbacks are 40ft front, 15 side and 40 rear. The Planning board voted to reduce it to 25ft, 10ft, 30ft respectively)) basically allowing a developer to place the houses even closer together. The infrastructure cost savings to the builder in piping, driveways and road building is substantial. You the homeowner, lose privacy, property value and risk reduced fire safety by closer proximity. The cluster subdivision ordinance allows the developer to build homes on half acre lots to maximize open space, lessen impervious surfaces and economies of cost in return for amenities and value to the homeowners.
Score this one for the builders too: Builders 3, Homeowners 0.
There are a few more examples, but I have proved my point. The above subdivision text amendments were brought by the same developer, who has been looking for ways to circumvent Union County’s ordinances since they failed to be grandfathered under the builder’s bonanza called Smart Growth, three years ago. ((Smart Growth subdivision ordinance was rescinded in 2005. The ordinance gave developers up to 25% more density for giving homeowners amenities like street trees, walking trails, clubhouses etc. — something most would provide anyways. In reality, it was a gift to campaign contributors.)) With just a couple of exceptions, none of the changes authorized by the Planning Board were enacted by the County Commissioners. Public outcry and the current lawsuit against the APFO prevented the Commissioners from approving the changes. ((How ironic, that the lawsuit against the APFO saved the APFO. Had the builders left it to Kevin Pressley and the other developer indebted commissioners, they would have voted the APFO out by June of 2007))
Cry for us Eastern Union
The sad fact for western Union County residents is likelihood of history repeating itself. Five years ago, a Board of Adjustment ((BOA members: Dan Johnson, Ruth Arant, Leroy Pittman, Everette Medlin and Bruce Walters. See Union board approves controversial Wal-Mart )) without a single newcomer, voted to permit the building of a Wal*Mart in the Somerset subdivision on Rea Road. The pleadings of local residents fell on deaf ears and after years and $300,000 of their own funds, they finally defeated the Wal*Mart in court. Some say this was the beginning of east-west animosity.
I am not equating our current Planning Board members with that infamous Board of Adjustment, but the disservice of putting financial welfare of builders/developers ahead of ensuring fair value to the homeowners and taxpayers is absolutely wrong. The Planning Board must speak for both the current and future residents, demand sound ordinances and fair zoning, which isn’t to say that Builders and Developers deserve any less, but it is the greater good of the taxpayers that government must serve.
As it was 5 years ago, it is the UNREPRESENTED western Union County resident that pays the price for cronyism and the surest way to perpetuate cronyism is to rig the system — the way townships do.
Scribble: There was much more to that Commissioners meeting, which I will cover in my next post.