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Refilling and reigning in P&Z

New commissioners appointed on Oct. 15, with training to follow
Johnson County Planning and Zoning Commissioner Kathy Swenka expresses her anger at proposed language in the County’s Unified Development Ordinance during a 2019 public hearing. County Supervisors agreed to appoint new members to fill two vacant seats on the five-member commission, and want to conduct training on their roles and responsibilities.

IOWA CITY– The Johnson County Planning and Zoning (P&Z) Commission was a topic of discussion during a work session of the County Board of Supervisors Wednesday, Sept. 30. Legislation passed earlier this year required P&Z commissioners and board of adjustment members to live in unincorporated areas created two vacancies on P&Z, which have gone unfilled.
According to Assistant County Attorney Ryan Maas, three or more votes are required to approve applications, and with only three commissioners (out of five seats) left, if one member cannot attend a meeting, then P&Z cannot function.
Not having a quorum would therefore lead to applicants having their requests delayed. The three commissioners are Mike Parker, Christine Rohret and Kathleen (Kathy) Swenka.
“A number of folks have submitted applications,” said Supervisor Rod Sullivan, and the board was informed there were indeed six applications for the P&Z Commission, consisting of three males and three females. All six met the requirements. In addition, Jim Martinek of rural Solon was recently appointed to the board of adjustment, leaving one seat open, which must be filled by a female to ensure gender balance.
Supervisor Pat Heiden recommended filling the P&Z vacancies, and having a joint meeting of the board and P&Z “To identify and work through any issues and concerns, and review expectations and responsibilities with the goal of ensuring a collaborative working relationship going forward.”
“It’s too bad we’re not voting,” said Sullivan. “Because that would be a great motion.”
Supervisors and P&Z members have clashed over county policies such as the Comprehensive Plan and its codification, the Unified Development Ordinance (UDO). Several requests for language changes, and other changes to the UDO, proposed by the Johnson County Farm Bureau, and approved by P&Z have frustrated the board.
“I have been concerned over the past few months that there may be a possibility that some of the folks on the P&Z Commission have not fully understood what their role is in this process,” Sullivan said. “I think that we need to have some actual discussion about the law and the role of P&Z vis-a-vis the board, and it would probably be beneficial for both groups.”
“I’d be more than happy to set that up,” said Planning, Development, and Sustainability Director Josh Busard.
Supervisor Lisa Green-Douglass said the commissioners should work “intimately with the UDO and Comp Plan, and apply it like a template to each and every application that comes through. Their recommendations should be predictable, because if certain things are met, and fit into the situation, they can recommend approval. Or, if it doesn’t, they would recommend to deny. “But,” she added, “there have been times where the commission has been all over the page, because… I don’t know why. I’m not going to guess why, but it was really not helpful to us to get a 3-2 (vote). We’re like, wow, why is there a discrepancy? It was a normal application.”
Green-Douglass conceded P&Z’s task is not always an easy one.
“Sometimes it does become difficult for anyone making these kinds of decisions to step back, take the emotion out of it, take the personal out of it, and simply apply the template,” she said. “We have to be able to trust the recommendations we get. I think we really need to be able to fully trust objective recommendations from them.”
“Their job is to advise on whether or not applications are in compliance,” Busard said. “It is not a two-way street where the board has to make the commission happy.”
The board agreed by consensus to appoint two new commissioners to fill the vacancies at a Thursday, Oct. 15, formal meeting with the goal of having them oriented to their positions in time for P&Z’s monthly public hearing on Monday, Nov. 9.