Mitchell Republic: McCook commissioners make little headway on ordinance for Laurent

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

By SETH TUPPER, The Daily Republic

SALEM - Frustration mounted for people on all sides of the Laurent issue Tuesday as little was accomplished during a four-hour meeting of the McCook County Commission.

Chairman Marc Dick, who also participated in an hour-long informal discussion afterward, left the courthouse looking exhausted.

�I don�t think we got anywhere today with this meeting,� said Dick, of Bridgewater.

It�s been nearly two years since the Commission was first approached by a deaf man and his hearing mother-in-law about building a town named �Laurent� for sign-language users. Tuesday�s meeting brought nobody any closer to knowing the project�s fate.

The proposed site of the town is near an interstate exit located three miles south of Salem. Laurent officials already have financing and options to buy the land, but they lack the zoning ordinance that would allow them to begin construction.

The Commission�s inaction on the ordinance has become a source of consternation for Laurent officials. M.E. Barwacz, one of the Laurent partners, used her strongest language to date Tuesday while addressing the commissioners and members of an opposition group known as McCook Citizens United. The group has posed many questions about Laurent�s potential impact on nearby farmers and the Salem economy.

�You keep asking these same questions, and you keep getting the same answers,� Barwacz said. �� The time has come to really get up to the table and get some action here.�

For the past two months, the Commission has been mired in a word-by-word evaluation of the proposed zoning ordinance. That process continued Tuesday as commissioners, their planning and zoning administrator, and eight members of the public debated nearly every paragraph in the 17-page document.

The purpose of the ordinance is to create a new zoning overlay called a �Traditional Neighborhood Planned Development Project.� Laurent needs the overlay because the county�s zoning categories do not allow for the type of mixed land-use that is necessary to build a town from scratch.

If the overlay is approved, developers such as The Laurent Company could seek to have the overlay applied to their land. The overlay would overrule the existing zoning, therefore allowing residential, commercial, industrial and other developments on land that is zoned for only one use.

Planning and Zoning Administrator John Knox wrote the ordinance, basing it almost entirely on an existing law in Baltimore, Md. Adapting the Baltimore ordinance to McCook County has proved challenging, partly because Knox and the commissioners are admittedly inexperienced at writing zoning codes. No independent party has formally evaluated the ordinance, but Dick said Tuesday that the Commission might consider hiring a consultant.

Most of Tuesday�s discussion was devoted to the meanings of individual words in the ordinance. For example:

There was disagreement on the meaning and purpose of the word �pilot� as used in the phrase �Traditional Neighborhood Planned Development Pilot Project.� The commissioners decided, therefore, to delete every instance of the word.

The word �walkable,� as it was used in defining a traditional neighborhood, was deemed too vague. So commissioners deleted the word in several places.

The word �consensus� was hotly debated, because a section of the ordinance would require developers to conduct a master-planning session and reach a �consensus� on a final plan. Even though the word �consensus� is typically defined as an agreement reached by a group as a whole, the ordinance defines a consensus as an agreement reached by �more than 50% of the participants� in the planning process. Some commissioners said they favored a different percentage, and they all argued about who should be considered a �participant� in the planning process. No decisions were made on either matter.

Commissioners said they expect to continue reviewing the ordinance at their next meeting Tuesday. Laurent officials had hoped to begin construction late this summer, but that seems improbable now. Even if the Commission decides to adopt the ordinance, a lengthy process will follow.

First, the Planning Commission, which consists of the same five members as the County Commission, must recommend the ordinance�s adoption or rejection. Then, the County Commission must follow a mandatory process of readings and publications that could string the process out for weeks. If the ordinance is finally approved, opponents could refer it to a public vote.

And then, if voters uphold the ordinance, Laurent officials will still have to submit an application to the Commission for designation of their land as a Traditional Neighborhood Planned Development Project.

If the time for an application ever comes, it�s certain there will be at least one �no� vote. Commissioner Orville Hofer, of Bridgewater, has stated from the beginning that he wants the Laurent people to go away. When asked Tuesday for his opinion about an aspect of the Laurent plan, Hofer offered the following retort to everyone at the meeting:

�My opinion is that this is a dream. As far as I�m concerned, I don�t give a d - - - what they do.�

Leave a Reply