NEW PORT RICHEY — More development projects could be approved behind closed doors if county commissioners agree with a proposal to scale back the role of a group of the county's top administrators who now review most requests.
Commissioners, acting on a consultant's recommendation to simplify the development review process, are considering allowing lower level staff to approve projects based on streamlined land development rules.
The Development Review Committee would still hear proposals for the largest projects such as mines, landfills, big box stores, master planned developments and developments that affect more than just the county. It also would hear requests to waive certain rules, change zoning and appeals of staff decisions.
Staff would take over deciding on commercial developments under 50,000 square feet, professional offices, targeted industries and industrial projects as well as urban subdivisions. Staffers already decide small projects that have limited impact.
The idea is not new. In 2001, County Administrator John Gallagher, who is chairman of the committee, lamented that Florida's Sunshine Law prohibited him from discussing pending developments with other committee members — his top assistants. In addition to Gallagher, the committee is composed of assistant administrators Dan Johnson, Bruce Kennedy, Bipin Parikh and Mike Nurrenbrock. Pasco School District planning director Chris Williams also sits on the panel but votes only on projects that affect the school system.
But Gallagher later acknowledged the DRC's oversight of developers was a public benefit that shouldn't be dismissed. It is an opportunity, in public view, for the administration to extract concessions from developers.
In the end, commissioners agreed.
But in 2008, a consultant hired in the wake of the recession to assess the county's attractiveness as a business destination recommended reducing the role of the DRC, saying it was too cumbersome. It also said too much was "done by variance," giving developers exceptions on a case by case basis and urged a rewrite of the rules to eliminate ambiguity and speed up the approval process.
At a workshop Tuesday, commissioners talked about balancing the rights of residents to have a say in the approval process with the developers' rights to a speedy decision.
One possible requirement is for developers to meet with neighbors early in the process. Also, anyone within 500 feet would have to be notified, rather than just those whose properties sit next to a proposed project.
But some questioned whether that was enough to engage the public.
"The biggest gripe we get is citizens saying they didn't know," Gallagher said.
Commissioner Michael Cox questioned the need for the committee at all if the code is well written.
"When issues or projects have a lot of moving parts, it's very cumbersome to have the top officials sit at a meeting governed by the Sunshine Law," he said.
Gallagher later defended the public process, saying, "I don't have any problem making my decisions in public."
Commissioner Ted Schrader offered another idea: If you want to make things simpler for developers, why not consider scrapping the Planning Commission — a group of residents appointed by commissioners to hear items after the Development Review Committee moves them along? Planning commissioners' decisions are primarily advisory.
Schrader said without the DRC, residents will simply use the County Commission as a forum to air concerns.
"That'll come to our desks," he said.
Lisa Buie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4604.