EDITORIAL: Let hearing examiner decide land use
July 3, 2008 · Updated 11:30 PM
Modern times require modern methods, which is why the city of Oak Harbor is correct in its efforts to eliminate the land use Board of Adjustment in favor of the hearing examiner approach to such matters.
For decades, the all-volunteer Board of Adjustment has ruled on simple land use matters, sometimes allowing variances to existing zoning codes to allow a project to proceed. This could benefit individual projects and make citizens feel as if they had an advocate against the faceless rules that sometimes come down from City Hall.
But the times are no longer so simple. Oak Harbors zoning laws now partly follow the dictates of the Washington State Growth Management Act, are tailored to dovetail with county zoning where needed, and are subject to interpretation by the courts should an appeal or lawsuit stem from a decision of the Board of Adjustments. On the one hand we have local laws vastly complicated by state guidelines, and on the other we have a panel of volunteers expected to keep up with current and ever-changing city, county and state zoning laws. Its too much to ask of volunteers, especially when their decisions can result in a lawsuit that the city must defend.
As an alternative we have the hearing examiner process, in which an attorney or former judge expert in land use law is the decision-maker on land use proposals. This person is charged with applying the law fairly and accurately, while maintaining and open public process and precise public records. We lose a bit of small town charm in the process -- no longer can special consideration be given to a particular citizen -- but the law is applied uniformly to all. Island County has used a hearing examiner for many years, and as a result land use controversies have diminished. Appeals can be made on the examiners application of the law, but with a qualified hearing examiner appeals are minimized.
A hearing examiner will make the land use decision-making process in Oak Harbor quicker, cleaner and more understandable to the general public. Board of Adjustment members should be thanked for a job well done, then set free to enjoy their evenings doing something other than deciding land use issues.