By Brynn Grimley (Kitsap Sun)
Commissioners Weigh Changes to Land Use Appeals Process
County commissioners may change the way the county handles land use appeals, and, more specifically, the involvement commissioners have in the process.
The board of commissioners will discuss two ordinances at a meeting Monday night. One removes the board from the appeal process and the other keeps commissioners in, but strengthens their role. Both include a requirement that mediation be offered to disagreeing parties.
The hope is a resolution might be met through mediation before entering into the often expensive and time consuming appeal process.
In 2008 county commissioners directed Department of Community Development staff to look into the pros and cons of changing the process. Specifically commissioners wanted staff to look into adding a mediation step to contested land use issues and the board’s role in appeals of hearing examiner decisions.
Currently, the county does not offer a way for opposing parties to meet with a mediator, but land-use planners often encourage developers to meet with surrounding property owners to address concerns.
Under the current appeal process, if a party does not agree with a hearing examiner decision and believes the examiner erred in coming to the determination, the decision can be appealed to county commissioners. The board acts in a quasi-judicial role and hears the appeal within strict parameters. No new information can be presented at the appeal hearing and the appellant has to prove where the examiner was wrong.
The appellants must also pay $500 to appeal a decision.
Community Development Director Larry Keeton suggested the board look into removing itself from the appeal process to avoid any appearance of unfairness. County planners handle the appeal process and once it reaches commissioners, the board becomes the judge.
This can be confusing for the public, especially for citizens not familiar with the appeal process.
“The problem I’ve seen in the three years I’ve been here is, the public comes in and see the board as a legislative body and not as a judicial body,” Keeton said.
If the commissioners were removed from the process, an appeal would go directly to Superior Court. For appeals tied to a higher state agency, like the Shoreline Hearings Board, the appeal would go directly to that board.
If commissioners remain in the process, they may restructure the way they hear appeals. Currently, appeals are public hearings during the board’s regular Monday meetings. One proposal suggests the board hold the appeal hearing on a separate day, or at a different time from the meeting, to make it clear that the hearings are separate from the board’s regular legislative and executive duties.
County planning commissioners in 2008 recommended the board remove itself from the process and add a mediation step. But county commissioners sent the recommendation back, requesting more details about mediation and how it would work.
The planning commissioners placed the item before the public. Developers and the Home Builders Association of Kitsap County testified against the proposal.
Art Castle, executive vice president of the association, said having the board involved in the appeal process keeps commissioners in the loop with hearing examiner decisions. If the examiner makes a bad decision, or a problem with county code arises, the board will see it during the appeal process and be able to take later legislative action.
“We think there’s a role for county commissioners in this,” Castle said. “Having them go out of it would be a disservice to the community.”
The association also has concerns with mediation and how realistic it is that a resolution will be met in a timely manner.
During the planning commission’s hearings no one testified in favor of adding mediation or removing the board from the process. The commission recommended against the proposal.
Editor’s Note: A public hearing will be held, at the administration building in Port Orchard to discuss these issues. The date and time will be as follows: Monday 22, 2010 at 7:00 pm.