Another draft should be going public by end of May
When ten officials from various arms of the county’s planning contingent sat down to put the finishing touches on the fourth draft of the Special Project Development Regulations at a work session on Monday, March 16, the end seemed to be in sight.
The group had reached a point in writing the regulations after two years when the Board of County Commissioners, the county attorney and legal counsel, the planning department and staff felt fairly confident that the document could move past the development phase, when elements of the regulations are debated and wording is changed.
The county commissioners had scheduled time in their agenda on Tuesday when they could have instructed the Planning Commission to start a 35-day final review before making a recommendation to the board on whether or not the regulations meet the criteria for approval.
The county commissioners never gave that order to the Planning Commission. Instead, the work session Monday was spent making more changes to the regulations, intended to set a separate development standard for “mega-projects” in the county, that were significant enough to delay the review at least a month.
At a special meeting on Friday, March 13, county attorney David Baumgarten told members of the Planning Commission, “We would really like to finish this thing up in the next two months.” But his forecast changed after Monday’s work session produced several changes to the regulations.
One of the changes made to the latest draft was the addition of language that allows municipalities in the county to undertake certain large projects that would meet the $25 million threshold, or some other trigger, without going through the special regulations application process. The projects would be reviewed as a minor impact project and ruled on by the Planning Commission.
Many of the revisions that were discussed at the work session involved increasing controls over projects to ensure environmental or financial protections for the county or municipality in which a project is located.
One environmental control the group talked about regulating carbon emissions that large development projects would generate, and even requiring that they be carbon-neutral.
Referring to an area of the regulations that requires energy neutrality from projects, meaning they would produce as much energy as they consumed, planning commissioner Richard Karas said, “I think the intent of it was really carbon neutrality.”
Barbara Green, who is providing outside legal counsel to the county, told the group, “The general rule would be that anything that is covered by an air permit issued by the state, you are preempted in discussing.”
In fact, she said, in most areas addressed by a state or federal regulatory agency, the county would be preempted. But carbon dioxide is not regulated by any state or federal agency. Karas argued that the county wouldn’t run into preemption problems on a pollutant that wasn’t regulated.
“On the issue of carbon neutrality, we have done some research and there are lots of conflicting expert reports and studies about whether or not that is an achievable standard. I don’t want to ask for something that isn’t achievable,” said Green, recommending that the county hire someone with expertise in carbon regulation issues.
Because of the discussion, the section requiring energy neutrality was removed permanently from the regulations.
Karas also asked if anything could be done with the regulations to protect support services for a large project from the loss of revenue when the project boom goes bust.
“How can public services, like the school, be maintained through the trough after preparing for the peak of a boom cycle? What can we do about that in the regulations?” he asked.
Green said that there wasn’t anything that could be done, other than preparing as a government for the possibility of a sharp decrease in the amount of revenue being collected.
But, she added, the county holds the power to revoke a permit from projects that fail to comply with the regulations. After the permit expires, a Development Improvement Agreement that the county would have with the project owner should have financial guarantees in it.
“For each project, you’ll be crafting a permit, so you can ensure that some hypothetical future is taken care of,” she said.
The group discussed many things in the document that could be changed to increase public participation in the process or limit the number of times an application can be amended before it has to be resubmitted as another project.
“We all could acknowledge the fact that we could sit here for five years and discuss [the regulations] but at some point it becomes counter-productive,” said county commissioner Hap Channell. “We’ve managed to make a lot of substantive changes during these meetings, so let’s keep the process moving forward.”
To do that, planning director Joanne Williams will have draft four of the regulations with an attachment detailing the changes from Monday’s work session available for review by April 10. The county commissioners have tentatively scheduled the order to start the final review by the Planning Commission on April 21.
The review lasts at least 35 days and will end with a recommendation to the county commissioners that will initiate the public hearing process at least 30 days from Friday, May 1.