The chairman of Bend’s planning commission will resign at the end of December, citing low public participation and a lack of opportunities for commissioners to create and influence policy.
In his resignation letter to Mayor Casey Roats, planning commission chairman Bill Wagner said Bend’s planning process is dominated by city employees and not input from residents or the planning commission.
By the time proposals reach the planning commission and the City Council for public hearings and votes, city staff and stakeholders are wedded to ideas and don’t want or encourage significant changes, he wrote.
Wagner, 74, has been on the planning commission since 2011 and began chairing it in 2013. He holds a master’s degree in urban and regional planning and worked as executive director of the Cascades West Council of Governance.
Wagner said Thursday he has been bothered for a while by the process by which code amendments and master plans are developed, but he chose to resign before his term expires at the end of 2018, in part because of the Oregon State University-Cascades master plan.
City staff will receive the master plan this month and work with OSU-Cascades before bringing it to the planning commission for a vote, Wagner said.
“I would have preferred a process where we would have engaged the community early on,” he said.
Members of the public have three opportunities to address the planning commission: during comment periods at the beginning of each meeting and during legislative and quasi-judicial public hearings. Legislative public hearings are held before changing city code or creating policies, while quasi-judicial public hearings are necessary to approve some permits for private development.
OSU-Cascades’ master plan would require a quasi-judicial hearing, meaning planning commissioners are legally limited in the amount of involvement they can have. Commissioners are only supposed to base quasi-judicial decisions on testimony during the public hearing, and any discussions they have outside of the public hearing must be disclosed as ex parte contact, a legal term meaning communication with only one party.
In cases like the OSU-Cascades master plan, it’s difficult for the planning commission to be involved early on and legally impossible to hear comments from the public, said Bend Planning Manager Colin Stephens.
“It probably is frustrating for the decision-makers,” Stephens said.
For bigger city-led changes, like Bend’s proposal to bring in 2,380 acres outside city limits, the city often creates technical advisory committees of more residents.
“There’s a fair amount of involvement that the city initiates,” Stephens said.
These committees help gather focused input, Wagner said, but they take away from the planning commission’s oversight process. He said the planning commission should act as more of a forum for discussion and a way to truly understand issues the public may have with decisions.
Instead, he said, commissioners more often see an answer settled on by city staff and stakeholder groups, not options to direct staff to pursue.
“Provide the planning commission with options, not the final solution,” Wagner said.
Sometimes, staff have to have draft language written to be able to explain it to the planning commission, Stephens said, but other times, they’ll provide options to choose between. As an example, Monday’s planning commission work session included both a set of proposed code amendments and a few different ways to handle a proposal to reduce the amount of open space multifamily apartments need to have, a suggestion from the city’s Affordable Housing Advisory Committee to bring down housing costs.
Bend has a great planning staff, Wagner said, but it leaves little space for the planning commission and the public.
“When they come up with a proposal, I generally don’t have a problem with it,” he said. “It’s a very efficient process, but it should have more involvement of the public at an earlier stage where plans are still being developed and options are still available.”
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