Director discusses county planning, zoning guidelines
While Carbon's governmental entities are not bureaucracies with multiple layers, the various departments within the county can be somewhat confusing to citizens.
For instance, take the department of planning and zoning. Within the department lies several specialties that many people don't know about or understand.
One of the most well-known is the planning department. If a resident wants to build a house or structure, the individual must go to planning to get a permit. Some people may view the process as an infringement on property rights. But planning isn't there to impede individual rights, but to protect the community at large.
"Everything that is done in the county as far as construction and building starts with planning" explains department director Dave Levanger.
Like police officers, planning officials sometimes give people bad news or keep residents from doing things that are against regulations.
"Our basic direction comes from state law," indicates Levanger. "The regulation in Utah is called the County Land Use and Development Management Act. The codes a county enacts must reflect that act."
The duties of the county planning department are numerous. The first is to make sure a master plan for building and zoning is in place.
In 1996, the commission approved a master plan for Carbon County. The plan was created with a series of meetings with the public and officials for the year before the proposal was approved.
"Master planning has been going on for a long time," comments Levanger. "There was one in the '70s and one in the '60s and probably ones long before that. But times change and plans need to change, too."
When the meetings were taking place, more than 150 citizens were involved in the process.
"In some ways, we began with a clean slate and asked the public what they wanted," points out Levanger. "We asked them about the uses of the land they wanted to see and began working from there."
A contractor specializing in county master plans was hired and worked with various committees formed with interested citizens. Once completed and adopted, the plan determines land use in the county.
"What was neat is that it was a real grass roots decision," reveals Levanger.
But the idea of the public having its cake and eat it, too, isn't always possible when it comes to land use and development.
"In the meetings, many of the people wanted to keep the quality of life we have in Carbon County," states Levanger. "But they also wanted industrial and other development so there would be good jobs and their children could stay in the county. Often when one thing changes, another will also change, not always for the good."
One thing that Levanger is most proud of is how the Ridge Road corridor was set up for industrial use, thereby mitigating problems in other parts of the county.
"That has worked very well," explains Levanger. "Joy Machinery, Nielson Construction and Nelco have all moved out there. There are others planned. We have a few residences in the area and we try to do what we can to mitigate their circumstances. But for the most part, that has been a real success as far as planning goes."
Balancing legitimate industrial and residential land uses is one of the reasons for a planning department.
There are also other conflicts that come into play when dealing with residences.
"People often want us to keep out facilities that cater to the elderly or to the disabled," adds Levanger. "But under the law, we can't do that. The facility must meet the codes and the regulations that would affect anyone, but we can't zone those types of facilities out of an area."
The planning and zoning department also cannot control what happens at other government sites like on state or federal lands.
"If you notice, when items come before the planning and zoning board or the county commission we only deal with private land," he states. "We have no power over other governmental properties."
All private lands in the county have zones. The zones denote what kinds of activities can take place and the structures that can be built. The county has the right to place conditions based on what is proposed for properties. An example is gas well development on private land. The county has a list of 10 to 20 items that can be put as a conditional use, depending on site location and industrial activities.
All major actions brought before the department are presented to the board at monthly meetings. The board consists of seven individuals, including a commissioner. Members look at and approve or disapprove actions. However, all board actions must go before the county commission for public hearings and approval before projects can be started.
State law allows for another action if a petitioner is not satisfied. All entities with a building-zoning department and a council or commission that approves the actions must have a board of adjustment. The board can overturn the decisions of the building-zoning panel and the county commission.
"The board of adjustment has a very narrow scope," indicates Levanger. "They can overturn decisions in only four ways."
The first way the members can overturn a decision is if there was an error in enforcement by the planning department.
"In other words, if someone makes a decision based on a personal feelings or if they don't like someone or a business, the board can overturn it," adds Levanger.
Second, the board can grant a special exception.
"In actuality, the state statute on this makes the action dependent on the local ordinance," explains Levanger. "But often, the local ordinances for this are not very clear, either. Right now, we are reviewing Carbon County's ordinance in this area."
The third way the board can change a decision is by granting a variance. Variances are usually based on practicalities like topography.
"We sometimes see situations where someone wants do something and the land they are working with will not allow them to follow regular ordinances," points out Levanger. "The board of adjustments can let the person or company go ahead with the project anyway. But people need to realize that this action is only taken under very narrow circumstances."
Finally, the board can interpret the zone maps and boundaries. A border on a map may seem straight forward , but there can be gray areas that need interpretation.
"We are here to make sure that the public as a whole is protected," concludes Levanger.