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A Times Editorial

Plan helps residents review development

© St. Petersburg Times
published May 26, 2002

Their heart was in the right place, but their idea was not.

Nevertheless, the Hernando County Commission salvaged a plan that, if executed properly, may satisfy everyone.

Responding to pleas from some residents who were denied entry to certain meetings where development proposals are scrutinized, the Hernando County Commission wanted to make the process more accessible.

One of the county attorneys drew up an ordinance that would have opened the Development Review Committee's meetings to comments and questions from residents.

But after discussion and some well-placed criticisms from builders, Realtors and engineers, the commission decided that would slow the permitting process and undermine the committee's mission, which is to review development proposals to ensure they meet county codes.

The commissioners did, however, acknowledge that the public needs better information sooner in the approval process.

They agreed to assign that task to a committee of interested residents, including some who have raised objections to the existing Development Review Committee.

It's a reasonable compromise and the citizens committee should consider these recommendations:

First, there needs to be more emphasis on informing the public about upcoming meetings of the Planning and Zoning Commission, which is where revisions to the county's land use maps and compatibility issues are first considered.

That venue already guarantees public comment. The challenge is to alert residents before the plans are approved.

Commissioners could direct their staff to use the Hernando County Government Broadcasting channel (19 on Time Warner) to air meeting times and topics, and they also should consider increasing the frequency and detail of newspaper advertisements.

While we agree that opening up all DRC meetings to public comment would be unwieldy, they should be open for public viewing. If the meetings cannot be held in a room large enough for interested residents to attend, the meetings should be videotaped and minutes should be kept.

Anyone with questions should be able to review the material and address questions to the county development director, who has the ultimate authority to issue building permits.

The county also needs to do a better job of educating the public about how it operates. One idea would be to air an instructional video that follows both commercial and residential building permits through each step of the approval process.

That could help inform residents about projects ranging from retail supercenters to home renovations.

As it is, developers seeking permits are the only ones allowed in the Development Review Committee meetings with staff. While the system works well, it is designed for the convenience of staff and the applicant.

That puts interested third parties outside the loop of information, which is the challenge the new citizens committee must overcome.

The residents who complained about this issue should be commended for their persistence in bringing this inherent inequity to the commission's attention, and the County Commission deserves their thanks, as well as those of developers, for seeking a prompt, balanced response.

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