In a continuation meeting held on Saturday, Jan. 14, county commissioners convened at Southwestern Community College’s Cecil Groves Building to discuss their goals for 2012. Commissioners also took steps to begin reviewing how the planning board operates.
The controversy surrounding the planning board stems from heated debates among planning board members on proposed steep slope regulations. That particular debate, which is still ongoing, has been cumbersome and controversial. After months of wrangling over the issue, the planning board decided to hold off on submitting a drafted steep slope ordinance to the board last year, and moved on to other issues where they could reach a consensus.
Current chairman of the commission board, Kevin Corbin, has decided to change how the planning board works to make the entity more efficient, and he discussed his vision to fellow board members last Saturday morning.
“I’m not being a Monday morning quarterback,” said chairman Corbin about how the planning board has operated in the past. “I do think the planning board has become too political. We need to get them back on track to becoming an advisory board that makes suggestions, and not a board that writes ordinances,” said Corbin. The chairman wants planning board members to make recommendations on land-use planning for the board to consider, rather than taking it upon themselves to formulate land-use ordinances for commissioners to vote on.
Corbin hopes that by making the planning board into an advisory board that submits suggestions and recommendations, it will enable commissioners to engage in the philosophical debates that inevitably arise with land-use planning.
The chairman believes this role will be more suitable for the commission board and the planning board alike, as it would put the power of drafting ordinances and debating land-use regulations into the hands of elected officials. The commission board approved of Corbin’s recommendations at Saturday’s meeting, but other reforms to the planning board made by Commissioner Ron Haven could end up dividing commissioners for the first time in 2012.
Commissioner Haven and former chairman of the board, Brian McClellan, who resigned last December after being arrested for a DWI, had proposed enacting term limits to county advisory boards back in September, but now the debate seems to be focused solely on the planning board. During last Saturday’s continuation meeting, Commissioner Haven spoke his mind about the present state of the planning board, suggesting that their inability to reach a consensus on important issues is a result of inept leadership and individual members trying to promote their own agenda. Haven stated that some planning board members have become “an embarrassment to the board.”
Thereafter, Commissioner Haven quickly moved to make a motion to enact term limits for planning board members during Saturday’s meeting, but before any amendment(s) is made to the planning board ordinance, a public hearing on the amendment(s) must take place. Consequently, Haven’s motion to enact term limits of two consecutive terms of three years, a total of six years for planning board members, did not go up for a vote. However, the board unanimously voted to give county attorney, Chester Jones, the authority to draw up and analyze Haven’s proposed amendments to the ordinance so a public hearing could occur sometime in the near future. Commissioner Haven believes term limits would give other qualified citizens an opportunity to serve on the important advisory board.
Furthermore, board members voted to include the standards of conduct on applications to serve on the planning board, a policy they require for anyone interesting in serving on the board to submit before going up for a vote. The board passed the initial application policy at their regular scheduled meeting in December.
Haven and term limits
Commissioner Ron Haven is obviously discontent with the planning board’s current stewardship, and the first term commissioner expressed his dissatisfaction in an email sent out last Friday night, Jan. 13, one night before the board’s continuation meeting. In the email, Haven went so far as to write that he would make an attempt to abolish the planning board if appropriate measures were not taken to reform the way the planning board functions.
“There is a very big difference in planning and dictating,” wrote Commissioner Haven in the email. “I felt I was instructed by the citizens of Macon County by the results of the 2010 election to do some things to make the planning board work or abolish it,” he wrote.
Haven continued to describe his antipathy towards planning board leaders, and singled out Lewis Penland, sitting chairman of the county’s planning board. “I feel this board is a nonfunctioning tool to the commissioner board and the citizens. When all that is important it to make citizens surrender their property rights, hinder job growth, and be a dictater [sic] then where if [sic] freedom in America if it can’t start at home,” he wrote. “It is time right now to make changes and you commissioners know it. Penland with his rude attitude, close minded, self agenda ideas has no place on the planning board. I think I have spent lots of time trying everything I can to do the right thing, be fair and understanding at every task we have worked on. I will stand for the citizens on [sic] Macon County in my vote tomorrow in reappointing members to the planning board even If I have to stand alone. Doing RIGHT don’t [sic] have options but maybe recommending to delete this planning board and it’s ordinance is,” concluded Commissioner Haven in his email.
On Tuesday, Jan. 17, Lewis Penland responded by saying, “right now I have no comment on the letter. I will say that I do agree with Commissioner Haven on one thing and that is we have got to stop kicking the can down the road and start making some tough decisions as a board,” he said.
Haven was referring to abolishing ‘Macon County’s Planning Board Ordinance’ from 1972, an ordinance that created the county’s planning board. The ordinance was established to provide assistance and help guide Macon County’s Board of Commissioners with land-use planning. The 1972 ordinance created a planning board consisting of five members, a number that was later amended to 11, but no term limits were attached to the original 1972 ordinance.
Commission chairman Kevin Corbin, who is one of three Republicans serving on the board along with Ron Haven, issued a response to Haven’s email on Saturday after the adjournment of the continuation meeting. “As I have shared with you before, I am not in favor of abolishing the Planning Board,” wrote chairman Corbin in his response email, implying that abolishing the planning board has been considered by Commissioner Haven in the past. “I have been very clear that my goal is to clarify the role of the Planning Board in relationship to the Commissioners. I think we were all in agreement in the meeting today to make these clarifications and move forward.”
Corbin continued, “I feel we should continue to have common sense planning that does not make it difficult for homeowners but does the job of protecting our environment and land in a reasonably way. I care about Macon County very much and respect your opinion as I do all four of our board members. I am not sending this e-mail to have a discussion on this back and forth with e-mails. I believe we should reserve that discussion for our next meeting and perhaps the meeting we are scheduling with the planning board at the end of the month,” he wrote.
Excluding Corbin’s response, every commissioner declined to comment on Commissioner Haven’s email, including Haven, saying that they will delay their comments until their next scheduled meeting in February. Corbin added that the board will take up the responsibility of filling the two planning board vacancies at their February meeting.
One vacancy emerged from Jimmy Tate’s appointment to the board of commissioners in December. Tate is not allowed to serve on the planning board and commission board simultaneously, so commissioners will have to vote on his replacement. The second vacancy is a result of present chairman Lewis Penland’s expired term. Penland’s term expired on Nov. 1, 2011. Penland will continue to serve as chairman of the planning board until commissioners vote on his reappointment or his replacement.
In 2004, the board of commissioners decided to amend the 1972 ordinance to include more planning board members, in an effort to reflect accurate representation with the county’s population growth. The 2004 amendments also did not include term limits, however.
Newly appointed commissioner, Jimmy Tate, who is the new liaison to the planning board, addressed the size of the planning board at Saturday’s meeting. Tate felt that 11 members were too many and the sheer size of the board was prohibiting its effectiveness and efficiency in reaching a consensus on important issues. Yet, after the board voted to give Chester Jones the authority to review and assess term limit revisions to the planning board ordinance made by Commissioner Haven, Tate retracted his idea of reducing the planning board’s size. Tate, who served on the planning board for a year before being appointed Commissioner, believes the proposed term limits and the new initiatives pushed by chairman Corbin will be sufficient in imposing adequate reforms to the board.
Although Commissioner Ronnie Beale agreed to allow county attorney to review proposed amendments to the planning board ordinance, he did state that he was concerned about the consequences of retroactive term limits. If Haven’s proposed term limits took effect, the entire planning board would change in two years, eliminating competent and experienced volunteers from the planning board, according to Beale’s statements at Saturday’s continuation meeting. If the term limits were in effect today, Lewis Penland would not be eligible for reappointment. Susan Ervin, also a sitting planning board member, will not be eligible for reappointment either. Her term expires this April. Both members have served two terms already.
“For some time now, there has been a concerted effort to undermine, demoralize, and demonize the planning board, and especially those members of it who speak out strongly in favor of the good regulation that is needed for orderly, appropriate development,” said Susan Ervin when asked about Penland’s status on the board and Commissioner Haven’s email. “Lewis Penland is one of those. He is a moderate, reasonable man who has done a good job of leading the Planning Board; he should be re-appointed and we, as board members, should have the right to re-elect him as our chair,” she said.
Ervin added that, “Mr. Haven's intemperate letter is an affront to anyone who believes that civil, informed discussion is essential to good decision making in a democratic society, and is especially unfortunate coming from an elected official. I hope that our county leaders will respond to clearly stated public concern and move us toward intelligent, communityoriented planning. The greed and short-sightedness of a few should not prevail over the decency of most of us here in the county,” concluded Ervin.
Another planning board member, Al Slagle, issued a statement regarding Commissioner Haven’s email on Jan. 16. “I believe Lewis Penland has been very effective as chairman of the planning board throughout the almost four years that I have served on the board,” stated Slagle. “We have been tasked with some difficult, controversial and challenging projects, and Lewis has helped move us through these various tasks efficiently and professionally. It's been stressful and hard for me (and others on the board) to deal with the personal attacks and character assassinations mounted against us. Mr. Haven’s email raises the rhetoric to a new level. I believe that self-interest and an “I want it right now - the heck with 10 years down the road” attitude, has motivated a small, vocal group to do their best to attempt to sabotage the planning board. I have not witnessed a “rude attitude, close minded, self agenda” in anything Lewis has done. In fact, I think he has worked selflessly for the good of Macon County, its citizens and our future generations,” ended Slagle.
Notwithstanding Saturday’s debate, no official changes were enacted at the continuation meeting, but board members will look into making reforms on how the planning board functions next month at their regular scheduled meeting. The county attorney will present his drafts to commissioners and is currently working on scheduling a public hearing on the proposed term-limit amendments.
Three applications for the two vacancies on the planning board will be on the agenda in February. Penland applied for reappointment to the planning board on Dec. 21, 2011. Christopher Hanners, an engineer from Franklin, also submitted an application to be on the planning board on Dec. 16, 2011. Bill Futtal, a contractor and realtor from Highlands, submitted his application on Dec. 19, 2011.
On Jan. 31, the board of commissioners will host a retreat with the planning board to discuss future changes and efforts to improve collaboration between the two bodies, according to chairman Corbin.