Council allows input following public hearings; controversy over commercial zoning

At a meeting of the Washington City Council, Washington City, Utah, Feb. 10, 2016 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

WASHINGTON CITY – A new practice adopted by the Washington City Council took some Washington Fields residents by surprise when the council chose not to vote on a controversial general plan amendment following a lengthy public hearing Wednesday. The vote was effectively tabled for two weeks so the council could take time to consider the input it had just received.

The move is a new practice adopted by the City Council that allows them more time to take in what city residents have just told them, but also also allows those residents to continue stating their case outside of the council chambers.

“We want to make the best decision we can,” said Councilwoman Kolene Granger, who introduced the idea to the council, “and a decision made immediately after a hearing may be too quick.”

Up until now, Washington City, like other municipalities, has generally voted on various measures like zone and ordinance changes following the conclusion of a public hearing. Now, when it comes to controversial issues at least, the council will likely table the vote until the next meeting so they can deliberate and consider the matter further.

This not only gives them time to continue vetting the matter in greater detail, Granger said, but also allows city residents the chance to contact the council members with any new information or share their opinion for the first time if they didn’t have a chance to attend the public hearing.

Area of a proposed general planned amendment at 2000 South and Washington Fields Road that could allow commercial development in the Washington Fields area if approved by the Washington City Council, Washington City, Utah, Feb. 10, 2016 | Image courtesy of Google Maps, St. George Utah
Area of a proposed general planned amendment at 2000 South and Washington Fields Road that could allow commercial development in the Washington Fields area if approved by the Washington City Council, Washington City, Utah, Feb. 10, 2016 | Image courtesy of Google Maps, St. George Utah

The matter set before the council Wednesday was a proposed general plan amendment change in the area of 2000 South and Washington Fields Road that would change a 10-acre parcel from low density residential zoning to potential commercial. The general plan change was requested by the city and the landowner.

Originally a 35-acre parcel set between Washington Fields Road and Heritage Fields Drive, the applicants shrunk the piece to a 10-acre parcel located at the corner of Washington Fields Road and 2000 South. To the south of the parcel is a 3-acre area between Washington Fields Road and 600 East that has been the site subject of multiple attempts to gain approval for commercial development.

Each time the attempt has been decried by area residents, and each time the City Council voted against allowing commercial there. The residents gathered at the council meeting Wednesday night hadn’t changed their minds just because it is now across the street.

It didn’t make sense then, it doesn’t make sense now,” Burke Staheli said.

Staheli’s family owns the 3-acre parcel to the south, and after hearing the residents’ “impassioned” statements to the council asking it not to allow commercial property there, he ended up agreeing with them.

Commercial development creeping into the Washington Fields area has long been an issue for area residents and city officials. Arguments against allowing small commercial projects in that part of the city commonly relate to concerns about increased traffic, crime, potential light pollution and so on.

“The greatest concern I have is the disturbance of the way of life,” area resident Lenny Jones said.

Overall, residents said they would stand opposed to commercial development of any sort in the area.

Once the public hearing began to wrap up, council members announced the council will vote in two weeks and went on to explain the new practice they had adopted.

A public hearing concerning a general plan amendment potentially allowing some commercial in the Washington Field area drew a crowd at a meeting of the Washington City Council, Washington City, Utah, Feb. 10, 2016 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News
A public hearing concerning a general plan amendment potentially allowing some commercial in the Washington Field area drew a crowd at a meeting of the Washington City Council, Washington City, Utah, Feb. 10, 2016 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

Those at the meeting were surprised by the announcement, as nothing about the new practice had been put on public notices they received, they said. However, City Manager Roger Carter said the notice did not include that a vote would be taken – only that there would be a public hearing on the proposed general plan amendment.

“Where are you discussing this and under what influence and who’s able to be there?” resident Glenn MacLellan asked. “… If it’s with other city people and people that are pushing for this, who know, you might have something there. But when you have all these people who say, ‘heck no,’ that’s a different thing … What are you getting? Who’s giving the input?”

The council members will be getting their input from the community and those within the city, Councilman Jeff Turek said.

“There’s where it’s your responsibility to talk to these folks,” Mayor Ken Neilson said as he pointed to members of the council.

Under the Utah Open and Public Meetings Act, a meeting includes, among other things: “The convening of a public body … with a quorum present, including a workshop or an executive session, whether in person or by means of electronic communications, for the purpose of discussing, receiving comments from the public about, or acting upon a matter over which the public body … has jurisdiction or advisory power.”

Public comments also must be available to the public. The council would  not, therefore, be able to meet and discuss the comments in quorum outside of public access.

In the past, when the council voted right after a public hearing, a criticism it received from residents is that they feel the City Council didn’t even listen to what they had to say, Carter said.

This part of giving us two weeks is to require more opportunity for input,” Granger said. “… It gives you two additional weeks to give us input if you feel like we didn’t hear everything that you wanted us to hear.”

The City Council is not going to make a decision behind the backs of the citizens, Granger said.

The additional two weeks will also allow council members who were absent from the meeting to review the situation and later vote accordingly.

Putting a vote on hold also wouldn’t be a regular practice for the majority of items requiring council approval, Granger said. Only those items that are controversial in nature or need additional consideration will be subject to the new practice.

“I have to be well-informed to do the best job I can,” Granger said.

Residents can contact City Council members through the Washington City website.

The issue of the general plan amendment at 2000 South and Washington Fields Road will go before the council during its next meeting Feb. 24.

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Email: mkessler@stgnews.com

Twitter: @MoriKessler

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2016, all rights reserved.

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