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Reno County Commission eyes disallowing public comment when considering planning recommendations

The Reno County Commission spent nearly an hour Tuesday discussing how it would approach receiving recommendations on NextEra Energy’s application for a permit for the Pretty Prairie Wind Farm.

A majority of the commission indicated support for taking no further public comment on the issue, relying solely on the recommendation of the Reno County Planning Commission and any evidence submitted to that board during the April 4 public hearing, now set to begin at 3 p.m. at the Atrium Hotel and Conference Center.

The commission, however, pressed by Commissioner Ron Hirst, left the door open to potentially considering “new information” not known when the planning commission makes its decision. That would follow a hybrid policy developed by the Wichita County Commission.

County Counselor Joe O’Sullivan was asked to draft a formal policy the board will take up in the future, likely next week. The policy would apply to all zoning applications, but the NextEra conditional use permit would be the first issue addressed by it.

A proponent of wind farm restrictions asked for clarification on what will be received by the Planning Commission and what will be forwarded to the County Commission.

In particular, Amy Brown advised the commission, residents would like to be able to offer audio-visual presentations during the public hearing and have experts in other states or countries testify by Skype.

“We don’t determine how the planning commission runs their hearings,” Bush said.

County Planner Mark Vonachen then advised that the planning commission decided it would accept videos on jump drive devices, with enough copies supplied for each commissioner, and PowerPoint presentations in a printed format only.

The planning commission will not allow testimony by remote means.

“We want the person standing at the podium at the public hearing to present their comments,” Vonachen said. “We’ve never allowed PowerPoints or videos. The person needs to be present.”

NextEra will have at least an hour to present its case, and then the public will be afforded however much time it takes – though each individual will be limited to 5 minutes each.

Upon the advice of O’Sullivan, the county commission and planning commission both had meetings with him and Planning and Zoning Consultant Russ Ewy last month about the conditional use permit process.

O’Sullivan also suggested adopting a formal, written procedure “for consistency” in making zoning decisions.

That, Bush noted, after O’Sullivan advised that the previous commission was not strictly following state statute by allowing public comment when the board was taking up the planning commission’s recommendations, rather than reviewing and deciding the case solely on information provided to the planning board.

“In the past, it was run as a pretty loose deal, with anyone wanting to talk allowed to talk,” Bush said. “If we follow the state guidelines, we would just get information from planning and zoning. We could then accept their recommendation, deny it or ask planning and zoning to consider or reconsider certain things.”

Brown expressed concern that such a process was “funneling down” the information, and that the public would not be allowed to present its best case possible.

Bush, however, rejected that description, saying he expected to receive copies of all the information that the planning commission did, from documents to videos to testimony.

“Whatever information is presented to them, in whatever format, will come to us,” he said. “With one caveat. If a microphone goes out when someone is talking, we won’t get that.”

Brown also asked for clarification on any cutoff for presenting information.

Vonachen advised information would be accepted up until the planning commission formally closed its public hearing.

Hirst said he liked the policy the city of Wichita uses, which allows “new information to be brought forth” during the 20 days from when the planning commission votes on it to when the city council takes an issue up.

The commission briefly debated what “new information” might mean, and agreed to leave it up to the county administrator or planning director to decide.

“State statutes do not prohibit what the commission is doing, it prescribes a system,” O’Sullivan said. “It does not say you can’t supplement it.”

“I see that we have three options,” Bush concluded. “First, we can follow state recommendations. That is, receive only data and records from planning and zoning. Second, we can receive only information from planning and zoning, except by some process receive new information. The third option is to continue to do it the way we’ve been doing and run around like we’re herding cats.”

“And leave it open to legitimate citizen concerns,” Hirst said.

“I move for the second approach,” Sellers said. “We’ll consider whatever the county counselor gives us to read and consider. If there’s anything suggested to add to that, we’ll make a recommendation and have him bring it back to use to finalize.”