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story.lead_photo.caption The Washington County Courthouse, Tuesday, February 14, 2017 in downtown Fayetteville. - Photo by David Gottschalk

FAYETTEVILLE -- Washington County officials are eyeing changes to the planning process, from revisions in the permit process to increasing the number of Planning Board members.

The Planning Board held a special meeting Wednesday to discuss the planning and zoning ordinance and procedures.

County zoning

Washington County adopted its zoning ordinance in 2006. All property in the unincorporated areas of the county was zoned for agricultural or single-family residential use. Property being used for commercial purposes at the time were “grandfathered in” and have been allowed to continue as commercial property. Any change in use requires property owners to obtain a permit from the Planning Board.

Source: Washington County

Nathan Crouch, planning director, briefed board members on the work done and fielded questions.

One change Crouch said has been adopted is planning staff will not make recommendations on whether a permit should be approved. In the past, the staff made recommendations on most permits and deferred to the Planning Board if an issue draws opposition.

Crouch said the ordinance sets out seven criteria for permits. Three ordinances ensure the applicant has properly filed an application and paid the proper fee, notifications were sent to neighboring property owners and adequate utilities, roads, drainage and other public services are available or can be made available.

The remaining four criteria are subjective, Crouch said, and should be decided by the Planning Board.

Those include the compatibility of the proposed use with surrounding property; the proposed use will not be detrimental to the public health, safety, morals, comfort or general welfare; the proposed use will not be injurious to the use and enjoyment of other property in the area or substantially diminish or impair property values; and the proposed use will not impede the normal and orderly development and improvement of the surrounding area.

County Attorney Brian Lester said the subjective questions are within the authority of the board and not the staff. Lester said the ordinance sets up a single zone for property, with all property in unincorporated Washington County zoned for agricultural or single-family residential use.

The courts have regarded the county allows through permits as zoning, Lester said.

"I'm not a fan of this ordinance," Lester told the board. "Based on these subjective standards, everything is detrimental. I live in a neighborhood where they're still building houses. That means I have to listen to people sawing and hammering and I can't enjoy my peace and quiet. Does that mean we're going to stop people from building houses?"

Robert Daugherty, vice chairman of the Planning Board, said the subjective nature of the standards makes the board's work more difficult.

"The problem for us is in taking the emotion out of it," Daugherty said. "You've got one applicant and then you've got masses of neighbors who are opposed to it."

Daugherty said the board needs to have as much factual information as possible and rely on that rather than the volume of opposition.

"They are so passionate about it they're going to say whatever they can to get it defeated," Daugherty said.

Crouch and Carl Gales, chief of staff to County Judge Joseph Wood, said Washington County is studying how the state's other large counties handle planning and zoning.

Crouch said he has been studying the compatibility matrix used in Benton County that defines a proposed land use and measures it against the use of the surrounding property and details how a proposed use can be made compatible, from greater setback requirements to landscaping or screening requirements.

Washington County has approached the Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission for information on possibly adding zoning classifications, according to Crouch.

The staff will continue working on proposed changes and present a proposed new ordinance to the Quorum Court when the draft work is completed, Crouch said. There is no timetable for finishing the revisions.

NW News on 02/13/2020

Print Headline: County officials eye planning changes

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