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LIGHTNING EDITORIAL: Be 'friendly' to the public, too

The current Henderson County Board of Commissioners styles itself as the friend of business and at the same time a protector of the public's rights. It is possible to be both, the rhetoric of national politics notwithstanding.

But one way the commissioners can serve both the public and the business community is to dismiss the recommendations of the planning staff and Planning Board that would reduce public participation in development decisions.
Planning Director Anthony Starr last week made a persuasive case for a series of changes to streamline the county's five-year-old Land Development Code. The Board of Commissioners directed staff "to identify possible options to reduce regulation and enhance the county's business friendly climate," Starr said.
For the most part, the changes, which have the unanimous endorsement of the Planning Board, would not appear to be harmful to the environment or to traffic, although those who monitor development in Henderson County should review them closely before a Sept. 19 hearing.
Among the proposed changes are one that would reduce required parking in apartment complexes from two spaces to one and a half spaces per dwelling (reducing the total for a 100-unit project from 200 to 150). Another reduces parking for industrial sites by a factor of eight, from one space per 500 square feet of floor area to one space for each 4,000 square feet. This cuts the parking for a 100,000-square-foot plant from 200 to 25 spaces. Although that is a big reduction, we agree it's justified by the changing pattern of industrial work; an acre of factory floor nowadays does not translate into a large number of human workers.
Unfortunately, the Kool Aid of deregulation has made the planners giddy when it comes to public notification and public hearings. If the Board of Commissioners wants to make a faster and easier path to development permits, then it ought to keep intact the practice of public notification and public input. Instead, Starr and the Planning Board recommend that the board eliminate the current requirement for a public hearing and legal advertising in newspapers for substantive Comprehensive Plan changes. (Under state law, the county still must take out legal notices and hold public hearings on rezoning requests.)
Starr says the change would save money, adding that legal advertising is "rarely read by the public." Instead, the county would post the proposed change on its website. That's not good enough. People are not accustomed to regularly visiting the county website to check for land-use changes; they're much more likely to notice the change in a legal ad, however obscure county planners deem those to be.
Starr says the hearing can be scrapped because both the commissioners and the planning board accept general public input at their meetings anyway. It's not the same thing. Advertising a proposed change in the comp plan and devoting a public hearing to the changes is the better way to guarantee the public's right to know and preserve the public's right to speak. Commissioners should keep both requirements.