Battered and abused

Published 11:19 pm Friday, December 19, 2014

Much has been made in the past couple of years of the poor relationship between Suffolk’s City Council and its School Board. Sometimes it seems as if the two elected bodies have spent more time pointing fingers at one another for the failure to provide the city’s teachers reasonable salary packages than they’ve spent actually trying to solve the problem.

The relationship between the two bodies was so strained that both bodies finally provided emissaries recently to serve on a task force designed to find a way to heal the rift. But compared to the City Council’s treatment of the appointed Planning Commission, it has treated the School Board like a favorite son.

A case in point has been council’s utter disdain for the recommendations of the Planning Commission and the staff of Suffolk’s planning department in regards to a rezoning and conditional use permit request on Bridge Road.

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The owners of the property near Bennett’s Creek have been stymied in their attempts to find tenants for the office and institutional development they had planned there several years ago. Hit by the recession and bursting real estate bubble nearly simultaneous with the opening of the first of several office buildings they had planned for the site, they found themselves unable to generate enough interest from potential tenants to continue their building program. So the property sat largely unused for years.

But last spring, developers decided to see if they could get help from the city and began the process of rezoning the property from O&I to B-1, a designation that, ostensibly, at least, would give them more options for how to use the property. But both the Planning Commission and the planning department had heartily recommended the request be denied on the basis that the B-1 uses the developer would have by right would be incompatible with the property’s location and with the city’s comprehensive plan.

In most municipalities, such recommendations are not taken lightly. In Suffolk, they resulted in a directive from City Council that the Planning Commission take another look. Even after the developer foolishly telegraphed his intention to go even further by asking for a conditional use permit to build 144 apartments on the site, council members ignored his stated intentions and pressed for the commission to change its mind. “There will never be apartments on that site,” council members said at the time.

When developers returned to the commission with a plan virtually unchanged from what they’d brought the first time, the commission again voted unanimously to recommend denying the rezoning. Again, City Council ignored the advice, choosing to grant the rezoning in November.

The final insult came on Wednesday, when council ignored another 8-0 recommendation against the developers’ promised request for a conditional use permit for an apartment complex on the site, voting 4-2 to approve the apartments the public had been told would never be built.

Members of the Planning Commission could be forgiven for wondering whether their efforts count for anything with City Council. Certainly their advice seems to have no value to the elected body, even when it’s backed by city staff and the weight of the comprehensive plan.

Council has made the right move in setting up a task force to improve relations with the School Board. Perhaps when the newly elected council members are seated, they should consider similar fence-mending with the battered and abused Planning Commission.