Belen's comprehensive plan out of date; ordinances considered

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Steven Tomita, the city of Belen's director of planning and zoning, alternately refers to it as the "backbone," "guiding principle" and "the Bible," yet Belen's Comprehensive Land Use Plan hasn't been updated for nearly eight years — something state law requires every five years.

Moreover, Tomita advised the city council this week that the municipal ordinance governing the planning and zoning commission was written way back in 1957, is now antiquated and needs to be redone.

With that, Tomita — who came to work for the city just last month — handed the councilors two proposed ordinances, one governing the establishment of boards, commissions and committees, the other actually establishing a planning and zoning commission. If adopted by the council as expected, the new ordinances would replace the old.

As far as a new Comprehensive Land Use Plan is concerned, the city will have to hire a consultant to help develop it, Tomita said.

The existing plan, while outdated, "contains some good information but doesn't paint a clear picture on visions and goals of the city," he said. The document should contain local plans, such as those for Becker Street and Main Street, and detail precisely what the city's economic development plan should be.

Citizen involvement must be an integral part of developing the new plan, Tomita said. It should be a living document, a guide for how to get things accomplished in Belen.

"This is a very important document," he said.

"This is something that's long overdue," newly-appointed Planning and Zoning Commissioner Tom Greer told the council.

Fortunately, the existing planning and zoning process is functioning the way it should, Tomita said.

Requests are first reviewed by the department, then, if needed, forwarded to the commission for its consideration. Finally, if required, they move on to the city council.

"That's the procedure they've been following and that's what they should be doing," Tomita said.

The 1957 ordnance that established the planning and zoning commission gave commissioners full authority to make decisions, with the council essentially acting as an appeals panel. That is not how things are done these days and the law needs to be changed to reflect the realities of today, Tomita said.

The new ordinance would clearly specify commissioners' responsibilities and procedures. It also contains specific language on term lengths.

In the draft ordinance Tomita presented to the council, the mayor, with the consent of the council, would appoint five members to the board who would serve staggered, overlapping two-year terms.

If the mayor and council should find cause to remove a board member, a public hearing must be held and the cause stated in writing and made part of the public record.

The primary responsibility is to "promote a comprehensive planning process with the general purpose of guiding and accomplishing a coordinated, adjusted, aesthetically appealing and harmonious development of the city," the proposed ordinance states.

The panel would make "careful and comprehensive surveys and studies of existing conditions and probable future growth … and make recommendations on means of protecting and improving the environment."

The commission would also prepare a master plan for the physical development of the city.

As it does now, the board would continue reviewing proposed subdivision platting, conditional use permits, requests for variances, sign exceptions and appeals taken from departmental decisions. It would also prepare zoning ordinances for the council, make recommendations on programs for improving the city, and confer with other local, state and even federal agencies as it deems necessary.

The commission would be required to elect a chairperson and vice chairperson for one-year terms, with no restrictions on reelection. They would also be required to adopt and publish rules, regulations and procedures for the conduct of business in Belen. It would be required to hold regularly scheduled meetings at least once a month and conform to the state Open Meetings Act.

Records would be kept of all board considerations and actions and filed with the city clerk.

The second proposed ordinance would establish uniform rules for the establishment of all municipal boards and committees that serve under the city council. It would specify the "purpose, membership, terms of service, duties and responsibilities and organization."

Ad hoc panels would be advisory in nature to the council, and would be established by resolution for not longer than two years.

Unless otherwise OK'd by the council, all members of boards and committees would have to be Belen residents.

Members could be removed by the mayor, with the approval of a majority of the council. Exceptions for ex-officio and utilities commission members are written into the proposed law. (An ex officio member is someone who belongs to a board, commission or committee by virtue of holding another office.)

With the same exceptions, panel members could be removed for failing to attend three consecutive regular meetings without good cause. Good cause would be decided by the panel members.

"If the board, commission or authority determines that good cause has not been shown, it shall recommend to the mayor that the member be removed," the proposed ordinance states.

It goes on to list notice and procedural requirements and rules governing conflicts of interest and recusal.

All subsidiary panels would be required to report "at least monthly" to the council. All recommendations would be in writing.