Freeland effort hit with new snafu

The future of Freeland has gotten a little ahead of itself.

County officials have acknowledged they missed a vital piece of planning work that needed to be completed before new rules can be adopted that will guide new development in the South End’s commercial hub.

A volunteer group, called the Freeland Development Regulation Steering Committee, began meeting in May and has held 10 meetings to help write new development rules for Freeland in its “business village” and “business general” zones.

But officials now say the county should have wrapped up work on the Freeland Sub Area Plan first — before it started writing new rules that builders would have to follow in the future. According to state law, the policies set out in the subarea plan are supposed to guide the creation of development regulations.

County Commissioner Helen Price Johnson called it “a terribly unfortunate discovery” when the board of commissioners was recently briefed on the oversight.

The county designated Freeland as a “non municipal urban growth area” and adopted the Freeland Sub Area Plan in December 2007. But a number of chapters to the subarea plan, called elements, that examine areas such as transportation, housing, capital facilities, economic development, utilities and parks were never completed. The county had created a timeline to finish that work and get it to the planning commission by May, but it never happened.

Price Johnson said Thursday the county needs to live up to its commitment to get the work done.

“This, in my opinion, is an overdue bill that needs to be paid to the citizens of Freeland,” she said.

Miscommunication and staff turnover may be a partial explanation as to why the subarea plan work was not done, Price Johnson said.

“I don’t believe the county dropped the ball,” she said, noting the challenges faced by the planning department in the past year brought on by the county’s budget crisis.

“We were furloughing people and laying them off, and just trying to keep the doors open,” she said.

The county also changed planning directors during the past year, and Jeff Tate, the former planning chief most familiar with Freeland planning issues, resigned his post.

Still, Price Johnson said positive progress has been made this year on Freeland’s planning efforts. The volunteer citizens committee that has been working on development rules has been reenergized, she said, and county staff has made a commitment to meet with Freeland-area residents and actively work through the issues.

Though Freeland volunteers have devoted six months of work on the new regulations, the revelation that the subarea plan must be finished first — before new rules can be adopted — doesn’t mean the county has to start over from scratch.

“There’s been nothing lost,” Price Johnson said.

Robert Pederson, the county’s planning director, agreed.

“It’s all good community input,” Pederson said.

Freeland volunteers, meanwhile, are hoping for a more prominent role as the effort continues to complete new development regulations and the unfinished bits of the subarea plan.

Steve Shapiro, the chairman of the Freeland Development Regulation Steering Committee, has pressed county commissioners to create a Freeland Community Commission.

The commission would help the county planning director review development projects that are proposed in Freeland, and would offer advice to developers on how those projects could be improved.

The advisory group would meet with developers and county staff members when projects are first proposed, and also monitor each project through the design, permitting and construction phases.

Shapiro has also suggested that the commission would keep the community updated on development projects by posting updates on Freeland’s community Internet site.

Shapiro presented the idea to commissioners at a recent board workshop. It got a warm response.

“It’s not a design review board,” he told commissioners. “It would also give the citizens of the area an immediate, and hopefully, an ongoing voice in how the community develops.

“We don’t want it to cost developers more money,” Shapiro added. “We don’t want to take more time. We don’t want it to impact negatively on the planning department. We want this to be a win, win, win.”

Commissioners said they support the idea. Price Johnson said that while Freeland residents have had a voice on development in the area, it hasn’t always been heard.

“They’ve actually said a great deal, but it hasn’t been incorporated into the county regulations yet,” she said.

“I still see it as a great concept,” Price Johnson added. “I think the details need to be worked out.”

In the meantime, county planners will present a first look at a work plan for completing the Freeland Sub Area Plan at next week’s steering committee meeting.

The steering committee will meet at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 7 in Grigware Hall at Trinity Lutheran Church in Freeland.

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