Council nixes planning commission charter change

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Council nixes planning commission charter change
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By Erich Wagner (File photo)

City councilors were less than receptive to a proposal by city staff that would delegate final approval of some non-developmental special use permits to the planning commission last weekend, and told city planners not to pursue the initiative further.

The idea, still in its nascent stages, would have proposed a charter amendment making the planning commission, an appointed body, the final authority for all “use-based” non-developmental special use permits. Developmental SUPs and “non-use based” SUPs — governing vacant lots, requesting height and floor-area ratio modifications and parking reductions — all would still require council approval.

Economic development leaders encouraged consideration of the proposal, arguing it would further streamline the lengthy and expensive process of starting a business in Alexandria. The idea was presented along with a package of smaller measures broadening the types of businesses eligible for administrative SUPs — a 30-day process — with the three-month full SUP process, which includes hearings before both the planning commission and city council.

“People have said to me a lot over the past year, since I took over as CEO, that one of the signs of a great leader can be delegation,” said Stephanie Landrum, president and CEO of Alexandria Economic Development Partnership. “You have to think about how you spend your time, about what staff and volunteer committees you have working. [This] frees up your time to talk about finance, policy and land use, the big issues that the city is facing and it is worth your continued consideration.”

But councilors seemingly wanted no part of the plan, in part because of its presentation in conjunction with the other tweaks to the permitting process.

“I thoroughly understand what we’re being asked today, but when you put something like that on a slide [in the presentation], it brings import into the discussion,” said City Councilor Paul Smedberg.

City Councilor Del Pepper was particularly concerned that staff had not yet established how planning commission decisions could be appealed to city council under the plan.

“Let’s say this was heard, that an item was heard by the planning commission, and there was a person or group that wished to appeal,” Pepper said. “What would they need to do?”

“The short answer is we haven’t developed an appeal process yet,” said city planning director Karl Moritz. “We didn’t want to get too far into the details before we got an expression of interest from the council. It could be everything from the same level of effort to go from an administrative SUP to a full hearing, where any individual affected can just notify staff and it is appealed, up to something like requiring a percentage of nearby property owners.”

Pepper, Smedberg, Mayor Allison Silberberg and city councilors John Chapman and Tim Lovain all said they were not comfortable telling staff to move forward with the idea.

“While I do thank staff for bringing this forward and trying to be creative — that benefits us and it benefits the business community — I don’t think this is an area where the community as well as us and some of the other stakeholders are ready to go yet,” Chapman said. “Maybe in the future, when perhaps there’s more understanding, outreach and education about what we do and how we do it and how folks can be involved in the process, maybe then it comes back and we move in that direction. But I think it’s a little premature now.”

Council was broadly more supportive of staff’s other initiative of expanding the types of businesses eligible for the administrative SUP approval process, to include fast-casual restaurants and gyms and increasing businesses’ capacity for delivery vehicles and child care homes.

“The administrative SUP process has worked very well for the last eight years, and that there have been zero appeals [in that time] is pretty remarkable,” Lovain said. “This is a judicious expansion of that administrative SUP process and it is carefully done. And with the expansion of the appellate process [to include civic associations in addition to individuals] in there, things can still come to council if there’s any kind of controversy.

“I think this is something that certainly saves us trouble and time, but more importantly, it saves applicants time and money.”

But Silberberg argued that other parts of the bureaucracy surrounding opening a business are a bigger thorn in entrepreneurs’ sides.

“We certainly want to help economic development and be extremely pro-business and I certainly believe in that and have demonstrated it time and time again,” she said. “But what I’ve heard from small businesses is that making this change is not their issue. Their issue is mainly focused on the permitting side of the process with code enforcement or whatever.

“[I] do think anything we can do to streamline the process to help businesses we should do, but I think we’re focused on the wrong end of this process.”

Council voted 6-1 to approve the expansion of the administrative SUP process. Silberberg cast the lone dissenting vote.

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