Wednesday, November 22, 2017
News Roundup

Proposal would abolish Hernando's planning commission, replace it with a magistrate

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BROOKSVILLE — The ability of residents to review land-use changes before they go to the Hernando County Commission could be lost under a proposal being discussed by commissioners.

Commissioner Nick Nicholson suggested last month that the commission hire a special magistrate — a professional whose expertise would be in zoning and land-use issues — instead of using the five-member Planning and Zoning Commission for initial public hearings. Commissioners agreed to discuss the issue and consider the idea at a future meeting.

The planning board, which is Hernando County's state-required local planning agency, conducts public hearings on rezonings and permits, as well as changes to the comprehensive plan. They make recommendations to the County Commission on whether to approve or deny proposals and what extra conditions to require. On some permits, they are the final say, but county commissioners can still agree to hear controversial issues themselves.

Nicholson said he believes the current process, which uses a volunteer citizens board, is "just a waste of everybody's time'' because some volunteers have been unprofessional and, in one recent case, the meeting was a "joke" because the chairman wasn't following meeting protocol.

"I think we waste a lot of county time and staff" with the planning and zoning process, said Commissioner Steve Champion. He also questioned whether the county had a problem filling the volunteer planning board and alternate positions.

Garth Coller, the county attorney, said the county's staff would still be involved in land-use changes such as rezonings and other special-use and conditional-use permits now heard by the Planning and Zoning Commission.

The idea of doing away with residents reviewing rezonings and other issues did not sit well with current and past members of the planning board. The unpaid members often face crowds of concerned and sometimes angry residents who are fighting against changes that could have an impact on the peace and ambiance of their neighborhoods. Recent examples have included fishing boats running through canals in residential neighborhoods in Hernando Beach, event and wedding venues in rural areas, and a gun range near a residential subdivision.

"I'm against this," said Anthony Palmieri, who was on the planning board for 11 years. "The special master is only one person. The planning board has five different people looking at an issue from five different perspectives."

While Palmieri supports keeping the board, he is not a fan of having planning commissioners making recommendations regarding who should fill vacancies on the board. He said it is important that planning commissioners have some level of expertise and that resumes should be examined before recommendations are made.

Bob Widmar spent more than nine years on the commission and, while he agrees that the members need to be people with expertise, he does not like the idea of changing the system. The planning commission is not elected and therefore can look at issues without the burden of worrying about whether decisions are politically popular.

"It's no skin off our nose" to make an unpopular decision based on the legal criteria for decisionmaking, Widmar said. "We won't be voted out of office."

If county commissioners have an issue with a member of planning commission, they can remove that member because they are the ones who make the appointments, Widmar said.

Having a paid magistrate do the reviews, "that's the wrong decision for so many reasons," he said. "That is putting a lot of responsibility on one individual. God only knows what his allegiances are and what background."

Sometimes the planning commission's recommendation is overturned by the County Commission. That happened several months ago when the planning board voted to keep what is known as the super-majority ordinance. County commissioners overturned the rule, which required four of five commissioners to approve changes in the county's comprehensive plan.

Despite occasional disagreements, current planning commission member John Scharch said switching to a magistrate would be wrong.

"I think it takes too much away from the general public," he said.

Contact Barbara Behrendt at bbehrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.

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