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Zoning fears prompt hour-long public comment


Kyle Clayton

Harold Medalen speaks during the public hearing for the comprehensive plan. He filled an empty seat on the Planning Commission after the hearing.

A flood of public criticism washed through the Petersburg Borough Assembly chamber Monday afternoon regarding zoning language in the soon to be adopted Borough Comprehensive Plan, but the nature of the comments in some ways highlighted misunderstanding of and the lack of involvement in the public process.

Mandated by the state, a comprehensive plan is "a compilation of policy statements, goals, standards and maps for guiding the physical, social and economic development, both private and public, of the first or second class borough," according to state statute.

A comprehensive plan in no way establishes any of the policies or goals, including zoning, but rather offers a guide for borough officials to use over the course of community development.

During the public hearing for an ordinance that, if approved by the assembly after three readings, would adopt the Borough's comprehensive plan, Borough Clerks Debbie Thompson and Mindy Swihart read 12 letters and six residents spoke to the assembly-all of whom were concerned about the implementation of zoning regulations outside service area one.

"We don't need regulations because we live remotely and if we are offending our neighbors with certain constructions we can deal with them personally," Beulah Johnson wrote in a letter. "We also have little to fear about lodges, hotels, parking lots, shopping centers, etc. crowding our living space. Even private dwellings will be slow to appear with our dwindling economy."

Community and Economic Development Director Liz Cabrera said the plan envisions potential zoning outside service area one as "by right" use, meaning permits would not be required for building structures such as a warehouse or running a home business.

"The only type of use where you would look at some type of permitting is a use that would have a detrimental impact to neighboring properties." Cabrera said. "We would envision things like perhaps an auto wrecking yard, a gravel pit. That's really to be determined by the people that live out there. At what point do you want a say in what happens on the surrounding properties?"

According to language in the plan, potential action in terms of zoning would, "Establish a new land use code for areas outside service area one that continues to allow individual land owners substantial latitude in the way they use their land, including allowing a wide range and intensity of uses, but also sets basic land use policies to achieve the following objectives:"

The plan then goes on to spell out those objectives including the protection of property values and the set up of processes to allow affected residents and landowners a voice in large-scale projects.

Papke's area resident John Murgas said he didn't want to see any type of zoning and that in the 27 years he's lived at Papke's, he's never known of a need for such protection.

"Why has no one from the borough asked us, we residents and property owners, if we want zoning?" Murgas asked. "Do we count?"

Others echoed that concern on their perceived lack of public knowledge or communication about zoning in the comprehensive plan.

"This might be a little bit of an overreach simply because the people out there haven't been notified," David Stathem said.

Others asserted that the zoning language was the borough's to make money off outlying residents.

"I feel like this is just another extension of the borough grasping onto us out in another area for the almighty dollar in the long-run and I feel like this thing should be discussed a lot more," Papke's Landing area resident Mike Stocks said.

Others waxed philosophic.

"The American people don't need a master they need an opportunity and opportunity comes by way of freedom," Bosjun Reid wrote.

Borough Assembly members and previous Borough Clerk Kathy O'Rear disputed the idea that there wasn't an opportunity for public involvement.

"As far as public notice and opportunities to comment or participate, that's been going on for about a year now," O'Rear said. "I take offense to that that you guys (Assembly members) aren't putting out enough information because you are."

Planning Commission Chair Dave Kensinger reiterated the point that any potential zoning outside service area one would go through additional public processes at multiple levels of government.

"Right now we have a vacancy on planning and zoning so anybody out here that's interested, all you have to do is give your name to the mayor and we have a meeting tomorrow at 10 o'clock and that's the process that this (zoning changes) would go through."

The opportunity for public involvement during the process was extensive. The firm that assisted in creating the comprehensive plan, along with borough staff, officials and residents held two open houses, hosted a series of publicized listening sessions and interviews, three meetings with the planning team, organized meetings with community groups, a series of publicized work sessions with the borough assembly and planning commission, along with other public hearing opportunities at the assembly, harbor and planning commission levels-all of this over a period of nearly two years.

During the same period of time, at least 10 stories were published in the Petersburg Pilot regarding the comprehensive plan and at least the same number of stories aired on KFSK.

During the meeting, some Assembly Members fired back at a perceived lack of awareness among community members regarding the issue.

"I think it's ludicrous, unfathomable and I think it shows a lack of education from some members of the community who have just heard this recently and decided to pounce on it," assembly member Jeigh Stanton Gregor said. "I don't see anything in this comprehensive plan that is meant to be intrusive on people's individual property rights. I don't see it."

Assembly member Nancy Strand also felt there was a misunderstanding from the public.

"It seemed to me that a lot of those comments were driven totally by emotion and they had a misconception about what it (the comprehensive plan) was pushing for," Strand said.

Assembly member Kurt Wohlhueter said regulating zoning and land use outside of service area one would end up costing the borough more than it would profit in permits and that the comprehensive plan was just a guideline.

"I hope they (outlying residents) never want to go to zoning out there because it would be a net loss to us," Wohlhueter said. "It's a nominal amount of money that is asked for electrical permits and building's a net loss. We'll just keep our fingers crossed that they never want us to go out there and do anything."

Language in the plan, and the ordinance approving it, is clear that implementing zoning, however minimal, is a goal.

"The goals and policies set forth in the comprehensive plan are aspirational in nature, and are not intended to commit the borough to a particular action, schedule or methodology," the ordinance states.

That language bothered Murgas, as he defined the word "aspirational" out of the Webster's Dictionary as " the strong desire or ambition."

"It's contradictory," Murgas said. "It's ambiguous. In the same sentence it says 'hey don't worry about it this doesn't mean anything at this time,' and then it says ... you're dead set on zoning. Please consider an amendment dropping the land use line and go back to the drawing board on zoning outside of service area one."

Assembly member Bob Lynn offered an amendment to the comprehensive plan language that "any proposal to implement a land use code for areas outside of service area one should include an advisory vote of those people affected."

The assembly, aside from Strand and Assembly Member Cindi Lagoudakis, approved the amendment and the full assembly approved the ordinance.

The assembly will vote for or against the ordinance in a final reading during its second meeting in March.

Harold Medalen, a member of the public who spoke against the zoning language during the public hearing against zoning, did put a letter in for the vacant seat on the Planning Commission.

"I left that hearing and I thought well I guess I could fill that seat and it would force me to keep myself apprised about what's going on," Medalen said.

In regards to neighbor-to-neighbor protection in un-zoned areas, he said people who want to buy property in those areas need to be aware.

"When you're building in areas where you have no zoning you have to understand that your neighbor may do something that you don't like," Medalen said. "If enough of that happens that might cause a majority of people to come and ask for zoning. Until such time I wouldn't worry about it from a borough standpoint. When they ask for it we'll give it to them." 

He also said many of the outlying residents were upset by zoning language in the comprehensive plan because during borough formation, they were led to believe by then city staff and officials that land outside city limits wouldn't be regulated.

"I was not really surprised to see that many people," Medalen said. "I do think it (potential zoning) needs to be approached really cautiously."


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