The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Local News

October 31, 2012

McDonald County efforts to regulate growth on hold as residents balk at restrictions

PINEVILLE, Mo. — In a rural county where urban development is inching its way in, voters Tuesday will be asked to do away with a county panel put in place to protect taxpayers and the environment as that growth comes.

Some residents, so alarmed by action a year ago to adopt regulations for subdivision development, gathered 400 signatures to place a question on the ballot to rid the county of that panel.

The question: Shall the McDonald County Planning Commission be terminated?

Art Wagner of Rocky Comfort says “yes.” He believes the commission is bound to impose too many controls.

“I think it will bring county zoning,” he said. “It’s just more than the people down here want to put up with.”

But Dwight Ittner, of Lanagan, the planning commission vice chairman, says “no.”

He said the commission was not trying to burden private property owners beyond what is necessary for public protection. “We just wanted to see development in a manner that won’t pollute the rivers and put a burden on the county taxpayers that shouldn’t occur if the planning was done properly.”

THE HISTORY

Voters approved a measure April 5, 1966, to create the planning commission. Residents from each of the county’s 19 voting districts were appointed to serve.

“Back in the 1960s, the county didn’t have one, but then Goodman needed to get a grant to put in a sewer system, and to do that the county had to have a planning commission,” Wagner said.

The panel went dormant after the grant was obtained and was reactivated years later to put together a comprehensive plan because county leaders say the tranquil country that has been a playground for campers, canoeists and fishermen began to attract people moving in from exploding Northwest Arkansas and urban settings.

County officials then reactivated the planning commission to write a comprehensive plan. A series of public meetings was held so that residents could give input on what they felt should be in the plan. Professional advisers were consulted.

The plan was finished and adopted in 2009, and the commission had been working since then to implement it.

“Then they came up with this subdivision plan to present to the County Commission,” Wagner said. It established regulations on how property is subdivided and how utilities and streets are to be installed.

That did not sit well with those who had bought parcels of land intending to subdivide as an investment.

Wagner said the reason he and many others are against the subdivision proposal is that it will turn “into a planning commission through which everyone will have to get a permit for building whatever, whether it be a horse barn or a house,” and eventually result in county zoning. That prospect has widespread opposition, Wagner said.

Ittner agrees that residents accepted the comprehensive plan but balked at the subdivision regulations. But Ittner said the aim of the subdivision regulations was not to interfere with subdividing and selling land.

“We were having too many going in and building a few houses and after they’re sold, the developer walks away,” leaving homeowners with unsatisfactory conditions and expecting the county to fix them, he said.

“Our main concerns were that roads were wide enough, there was enough space to get emergency vehicles in and out, and utilities were installed correctly,” Ittner said. “Much of it is on the books as state regulations through DNR or the Corps of Engineers dealing with waterways.

“The big thing was to be sure that roads and utility easements were proper for the development and wouldn’t cause the county to have to come in later to fix those. It was directed at keeping costs to taxpayers down in future years.”

Richard Huston, of Tiff City, a volunteer firefighter and member of the 911 board, said many residents feel the County Commission can apply those state regulations without local regulations in place.

The locally written subdivision regulations are 19 pages long, Huston said. “There was too much confusion for people,” he said.

“We do need some planning done on where people can build because there are houses built in areas where there’s a flood plain,” but that is because county flood plain maps had not been updated for years until recently, he said.

Otherwise, the commission should enforce state regulations on roads and waterway protection, he said.

Other counties, such as Jasper and Newton, do not have planning commissions. Jasper County voters have rejected county zoning proposals three times.

Wagner said county officials have long said the regulations are needed because Wal-Mart’s headquarters in neighboring Benton County, Ark., would create growth in the county.

“We’ve been hearing that for years, and it has never materialized,” Wagner said.

Scott Michie, a consultant who operates Scott A. Michie Planning Services in Kansas City, said planning and zoning regulations are meant to be agreements on how appropriate improvements should be done to protect the public.

All of the rules are negotiable, he said.

State statutes give local governments the authority to adopt regulations as loose or strict as local residents want.

“If residents feel they’re too strict, they can hold a public hearing and amend them,” Michie said.

The regulations are intended to achieve proper design for the safety and for long-term investment return of buyers and the public.

Michie said he recently helped a Kansas county settle a disagreement over regulations for parking lots. Some wanted hard surface lots of concrete or asphalt. Other residents wanted the option of building gravel lots. An agreement was reached to allow both, but to specify how the bed of a gravel lot would be prepared so that it would stand up to traffic.

“If you don’t like the standards, don’t throw the baby out with the bath water,” Michie said. “Just hold a public hearing and move forward with newly amended regulations.”

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