News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

Commission seeks deeper discussions

During a review of their recent retreat, the Sisters Planning Commission explored the need for more time to conduct discussions regarding the many topics and projects they are expected to address and recommend to the City Council.

Commissioner Tom Ries began the discussion.

“Sooner or later we are going to have to make code changes to address the growth and design standards, so we don’t have just big-boxes built,” he said. “I’m even talking about fire mitigation. There are a lot of big trees that need to be limbed up. As a commission, it seems we need to talk about those things.

“I would like to get into more of a discussion about those kinds of items, how we go about doing that as a group. It doesn’t always just have to be run by the staff. The commissioners can actually discuss these things.”

In the past several years, the Planning Commission has dealt with the big issues of the Sisters Vision Plan, the Comprehensive Plan, and efficiency measures, in addition to the increasing number of development applications and public hearings. Much of that occurred during the restrictions in place due to COVID-19.

Principal Planner Matthew Martin added, “Almost every session, there’s change to state law that we have to consider, to incorporate into our code, so that’s another competing interest on our time… The variable of any development proposals that are coming to you also push back any of those other projects.”

Chairman Jeff Seymour added, “Now we are coming back to some level of normalcy. We never had to do two meetings a month, and now we do. That’s clearly reflective of the volume of work we have… I think it would be really great if we had the time and ability to go back to an informal setting in workshops so we could have a little creativity involved to make some of this stuff happen.”

The Planning Commission for the last several years has met the third Thursday of each month to either hold a workshop at 4 p.m. or a public meeting at 5:30 p.m. For now, they are meeting the first Thursday of every month at 4:30 p.m. for a workshop and the third Thursday of every month at 5:30 p.m. for a public meeting, including hearings.

Chairman Seymour, the longest serving member on the Planning Commission, provided some historical context on how the Commission has functioned in the past. He pointed out that the Planning Commission serves at the pleasure of the City Council, who annually set their goals for the City.

“They usually identify a few areas in the Development Code that need some adjustment,” he said. “It’s usually a hot topic issue or will become a hot-topic issue that we need to get out in front of. One of the things they have talked about is dark skies. They really do want us to take a good, hard look at the dark-sky ordinance language and identify what, if anything, needs to be changed and then go through and make adjustments with staff, make our recommendations, and then they go from there. Short-term rentals are another one they want us to look at.

“In their day-to-day dealings, staff identifies code language that is outdated or has shortcomings. The code needs to be changed to reflect the times. They will present us with a list of potential code changes to consider.”

Seymour continued, “Historically, we’ve been able to have robust conversations during workshops, comparing the current code to the potential changes, weighing the positives and negatives, and actually contribute to the writing of the code. The last three years, for a variety of reasons, we have not done that. A lot has been dictated to us and we’ve been told we need to deal with this… We just haven’t had time in these less formal settings to sit down and have informal conversations. That’s where the really good work gets done.”

Commissioner Vikki Hickman pointed out that a big part of their discussion should address the mismatch of the Comprehensive Plan and Development Code, and “that’s a big project that has great potential. To me, the Comprehensive Plan is the policy of what the citizenry of Sisters is looking for, and the Development Code is all the procedures of how that is brought about… We don’t have any shortage of work to be done but we need direction and time out for specificity.”

Planner Martin remarked, “Certainly we are open to additional work session opportunities so we’re able to provide education on specific Planning Commission functions and procedures.”

As a new commissioner, Jeremy Dickman asked, “Is there a mechanism for a single commissioner to bring forth concerns?”

Martin replied, “At any point that you are reviewing a development proposal coming before you, if something doesn’t seem right, and you’d like to elevate it for a discussion, certainly bring it to our attention. Use staff as a resource to bounce those questions off.”

Currently, staff has been doing some forecasting and meeting on bringing a package of Development Code amendments to the Commission – mostly housekeeping items like cleaning up language, nothing substantive. They are also looking at other projects that will require detailed conversations.

Commissioner Art Blumenkron asked if commissioners could receive, prior to a hearing, any historical information if there has been a previous related hearing and what the decision was, so commissioners could read through the material and be up-to-date on what was previously decided and why.

The subject of short-term rentals is a good example. The Council wants the Planning Commission to revisit that topic. Background information is necessary, particularly for commissioners who are new, and weren’t involved in the initial decision.

Martin responded, “We can make citations in the staff reports. That is valuable information. We need to be sure we’re staying on track and not violating a procedural step and distributing information outside of the record.”

There were also questions about why and how modifications and variances are allowed to already-approved master plans. Martin explained that modification requests can be due to a variety of reasons, but have to be discreet to particular items within the master plan or else they would have to file an entirely new master plan.

Following approval, if a reason for modification develops, there is a procedure the applicant must follow for requesting the modification. That reason can range from a changing economy, to supply shortages, to alteration of driveway lengths, to a new builder taking over the project, to a need to pivot in order to finish a project. The staff will reevaluate the modifications against what the applicable criteria are. If they find the modification meets all the standards, the modification will be approved. In multi-phase developments changes are often needed.

All commissioners seemed to be requesting more in-depth discussion and the time for staff to provide background criteria. The two-meetings-a-month format will allow time for education, background information and in-depth conversations regarding upcoming hearings, and information on related decisions or legislative history related to a particular project.


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