Attorney Jerry Hawkins, Gary Clements, Adam Thompson, and Jon Bristor, Director of Sumner County Planning-Zoning-Environmental Health, weigh in on the issue.
Last week, the Sumner County Commission made public its proposal to change the county’s regulations to give the three Commissioners the sole authority to decide whether to grant a conditional use permit.
Jerry Hawkins is the attorney for a group of landowners who filed an action to appeal the County’s decision approving a conditional use application by Invenergy, a developer which wanted to build a controversial commercial wind farm in northern Sumner County.
“People may not think about the importance of zoning until it affects them,” Mr. Hawkins says. Conditional use permits are not just for wind farms, they are required for things like wrecking, salvage or junk yards, recycling centers, airports, land used for raising and care of dangerous animals, feed manufacturers, livestock sale barns, fertilizer plants, electrical substations, cemeteries, nursing homes, and radio towers, to name a few. If a property owner near you wants to build something next to your property and they need a conditional use permit to do it, they file an application with the County.
Under the current Sumner County Regulations, an application for a permit then has to be reviewed and approved by both the Planning Commission and the County Commission. The Planning Commission is a group of nine people appointed by the County Commission whose specific role is to consider changes in zoning and conditional use permits. Mr. Hawkins says that a neighbor wanting to keep the permitted uses around his home the same has two layers of protection under the current Sumner County regulation because a change from the status quo has to be approved by both bodies.
The Sumner County Commission is proposing to change the regulations so that a majority of the three Commissioners can approve a conditional use permit regardless of what the nine members of the Planning Commission recommend.
“That’s exactly what happened to all of the landowners I represent in northern Sumner County,” Hawkins said. Invenergy, a wind developer, wanted to build a 60-65 turbine commercial wind farm next to or around these landowners’ properties. “These landowners had serious concerns about how these large commercial wind towers were going to affect their property values, and their use and enjoyment of their land.”
“Once a wind farm is built close to or around your home, what do you think happens to the marketability of your home and the equity you have accumulated?” The wind developer was offering a $500,000 donation to the County, in lieu of paying property taxes, if its conditional use permit was approved. After hearing from Invenergy and some of the residents, at a hearing in December, 2017, only three of the nine members of the Planning Commission supported Invenergy’s proposal, with one member abstaining. Later that month, County Commissioners Cliff Bales and Jim Newell voted to allow the wind farm. Commissioner Steve Warner, who represents the district where the proposed wind farm was to be built, voted against it. Hawkins says, “We objected to the Commission, saying you cannot approve the permit under your regulations, you need the approval of the Planning Commission.” The County disagreed.
“After the Commissioner’s decision, we took the case to court where the judge’s role involves reviewing the legality of the decision,” Hawkins explains. Late last year, the judge sided with the landowners. In his decision, Sumner County District Court Judge Mott wrote, “The County regulations clearly require a positive recommendation from the Planning Commission and the approval of the Governing Body before a Conditional Use Permit is issued. To rule otherwise overlooks the plain meaning of the words expressed in the regulations and the County’s rule of interpretation expressed therein.” This week the County Commission filed a notice that it will appeal the decision, and in the meantime, has proposed to change the Regulations.
The Sumner County Planning Commission considered the County Commission’s proposal at a public hearing at 7:30 p.m. on March 28, at the Raymond Frye Complex in Wellington. “We intend to make it very clear we oppose this change,” Hawkins said before the meeting. “If a wind farm, junk yard, cemetery, or anything else requiring a conditional use permit is proposed, there should be more protection. The Sumner County Regulations as written mean the Planning Commission is part of the checks and balances of local government, and their recommendation matters. We feel it should stay that way.”
The room was packed standing room only. Several times during the meeting the public was directed to keep comments to themselves as people were emotional and clapping would erupt. One of the recognized speakers was admonished by the committee for addressing the public instead of the committee when she asked how many people in the room were against changing the wording (everybody raised their hands). While being admonished for addressing the crowd, she asked how many people were in favor of changing the wording and no hands were raised. It was a long meeting but the general public was clearly against changing the wording for various reasons.
The issue was tabled in a 6 to 4 vote until the next meeting.
Hawkins says after last night's meeting at the Frye Complex that he "feels the support of a large community of interested people who want the regulations kept as they are."
Gary Clements, of Wellington, was there at the meeting, and said, “I will say that for me the issue is not the wind energy, but the sudden rush to change the wording of an established ordinance. I applaud the members who are in no hurry and want to gather all of the facts before rushing to change rules that were put in place to protect the citizens of this county.”
Adam Thompson lives in northern Sumner County, and was a plaintiff on the wind farm case. The wind farm project, the third of its kind in Sumner County, generated resistance from neighbors in the area who fear their property values would plunge with if the mills were built.However, he says, “to me, this is independent of that. I am more of a concerned citizen.”
Thompson says he “had no idea how big a deal it was to get involved in zoning.” He says he first heard of this issue when he read the legal notice in this newspaper.
After reading it and attending last week’s meeting, Thompson is left with questions. “Why are we trying to change the rules? Why do they need to be changed?”
He says the phrase ‘business as usual’ was mentioned at last week’s meeting, and he wonders “how that can be if you are changing regulations? It can’t get that much more plain. What is the purpose of this if it is just to do business as usual?”
Thompson feels that this change would take away one protection where discussion is mandated.
He fears “we will lose input. Two to three people, who may not have all the best info, would be making the ultimate decisions on controversial land decisions.”
“Since when is more discussion on controversial matters a bad deal?” Thompson wonders. “I honestly do not know why this is going so fast. Applying for an appeal on Judge Mott’s decision and trying to change the wording of the regulations is an interesting concept.”
“Zoning regulations are a necessary evil,” Thompson admits. “However, if the system is not broken, it is hard to get excited about fixing it. The Sumner County regulations, as written, means the Planning Commission is part of the checks and balances, and it should remain that way.”
Thompson says he is cautiously optimistic about the next meeting later this month. He says he is unsure of what will happen.
Jon Bristor, Director of Sumner County Planning-Zoning-Environmental Health, was reached for comment Monday and said he was “surprised by the magnitude of response to the change.” He added he has “had numerous calls and people coming into the office who do not understand the change. I hope the majority of people who did not understand the nature of the change understand it now.”
Bristor has found that some of the public rancor over the proposed change is based on their “misinterpretation,” that’s based off the people that have inquired about the change to his office.
In the meantime, Bristor alluded to the recent Judge Mott decision that the County Commission filed an appeal on. “While that case is on appeal in Topeka, it will be business as usual here.”
The Planning Commission, Bristor said, did ask for more “information and time to look over the physical slides brought forth by Hawkins.” Most of them have already contacted Bristor to say they have received the documents to examine. Bristor says the Planning Commission on the 18th can either approve the case, deny the case, or table it again if they desire. That case will go to the County Commissioners if not tabled by the Planning Commission and the County Commissioners can either concur with the recommendation that the Planning Commission submits or they can approve the opposite or table the case themselves.