Developing in Sisters


Last updated 6/13/2023 at 9:51am

I attended the most recent Sisters Planning Commission workshop on June 1. On the agenda was the introduction of the Planning Commission’s consideration of the application to tear down and rebuild the Space Age gas station. No public participation of any sort is allowed at Planning Commission workshops so that wasn’t the reason I spent my valuable time just sitting and watching.

I went because at their April 20 workshop, at the 4:39 p.m. mark, the Planning Commissioners were told by the City’s hired attorney, Jeremy Green, that their role in the development process was to serve the community’s interests. And because for the first 90 minutes of that workshop, the Commissioners had been told by the City’s planning staff that they weren’t allowed to engage in any of the activities that would allow them to learn anything at all about what the community’s interests might be.

I’ve spent the better part of 35 years designing and participating in public processes, many of them real estate development-related processes. I’ve done this at the federal, state. and local levels.

For 12 years, I participated in a County-established Community Planning Organization (CPO), which has the same role in a community as a city planning commission. For five years I was one of the people conducting the public processes we developed. Like the Sisters Planning Commission, we reviewed all development applications for projects occurring in our community of 25,000 people. As in Sisters, we had to use development code criteria as the basis for our recommendations. We referred to the County’s Comprehensive Plan, its Transportation System Plan, and the community’s vision. And as with the Sisters Planning Commission, our recommendations were just that — recommendations. They could be, and sometimes were, ignored by the County. But often they weren’t.

Unlike in Sisters, however, we actually conducted a public process. We did site visits, took photos, and measured things. We talked to neighbors, or nearby businesses. We talked to county commissioners, their planning staff, the county planning commissioners. We talked to each other and we talked to citizens in the community, at any time, about any of the issues that came before us.

When the community needed education to make good decisions, we brought in experts. We created PowerPoint presentations to use at our meetings. We asked for and got data to analyze and drafted development code provisions.

The common thread in all of the processes I was part of was actual public participation. The rule for participation in every case was that anyone who attended the meetings (all of them were public meetings) could speak, for as long as they wanted, as part of the conversation. And it was a conversation. And by the time a vote was taken, the whole community was informed and our recommendations reflected a consensus of the community.

We typically had 40 or more people attending our meetings, though it was often more than 80. In the Sisters public records I reviewed for 2018 and 2019, when a lot of Sisters Development Code provisions were changed, some significantly, not one member of the public at large attended.

Policy 1.1.1 (Public Involvement) in the Sisters Comprehensive Plan puts the City’s Planning Commission in charge of ensuring “public involvement.”

From a knowledgeable outsider’s perspective, no such activity is taking place in the City’s development processes. No one participates because they’re not allowed. The delivery of a three-minute sound bite, at a random point in a meeting, isn’t “involvement.” The City seems to suggest that simply providing public notice for public meetings where citizens are not allowed to participate in any meaningful way is public “involvement.”

For anyone who would like to see a Reader’s Digest version of a typical Sisters Planning Commission process, visit and read the blog post there for Text Amendment docket TA19-01. More information will be posted there soon on other issues where the lack of public process is also the order of the day.

This could all be fixed, without breaking any rules (none of which were cited in the Commission’s April 20 workshop). I’m available to help, for free. The benefits for the City would surprise you.


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