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Local discretion snuffed out in land use realm

City councilors passed ordinances Tuesday that clear the way for the controversial Oak Ridge Meadows subdivision near Baker Creek.

The city’s planning staff had been claiming for months that they had little choice, that land-use decisions are strictly controlled by predetermined city code and state law.

City councilors can modify a proposal here and there, but as long as the subdivision meets legal criteria, all they can do is provide a rubber stamp and wish the developers well. Still, the decision entailed dozens of hours of public hearing between the planning commission and city council.

The public dialogue was certainly engaging. Discussions of traffic loads on neighborhoods and a seemingly errant FEMA flood map currently on the books may lead to future changes in policy. 

Nonetheless, the outcome remains frustrating for many.

Councilors Adam Garvin, Zach Geary and Sal Peralta tried to veer from their predestined path by voting no Tuesday, forcing Mayor Scott Hill to break the resulting tie with a deciding yes vote. Concern was raised about the 1,200-car-per-day maximum set for Pinot Noir Dr., part of a development plan passed by the council in 2010.

The council faced a final Aug. 13 deadline under state law for making a decision. Amending local traffic codes in response to a single development — at the eleventh hour — struck most councilors as too much to tackle with too little time left for adequate discussion.

Agreed. And it’s worth noting that councilors had months to consider the impact of increased traffic on the surrounding neighborhood.

On the other hand, Tuesday was the first time the full council had a chance to discuss the subdivision. Without the August deadline, they could have taken the time to thoroughly examine traffic issues.

We also can’t fault any councilor for wanting to take some hand in shaping the final decision. Their constituents voted for them to raise their voices, not just wield a rubber stamp.

Still, the law is the law: quasi-judicial matters often paint councilors into a corner.

It just seems an extravagant waste of time. Sure, developers changed over time in response to city codes and public input. But, as long as they the application met predetermined criteria, they had the upper hand throughout the process.

Councilors and planning commissioners were judges in this process, forced to interpret the law rather than formulate policy. We don’t have a remedy. We doubt one even exists.

All we can really do is suggest that while all this rigmarole may uphold the law, it also invites public cynicism.

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