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Jacksonville residents will get more say

JACKSONVILLE — A new emphasis on resident involvement has a former city councilor optimistic the city will be able to move forward on revisions to development codes while at the same time protecting the town’s historical integrity.

Revised standards covering resident input have been drafted and will be considered for adoption after review by a state agency.

“I’m very happy. It was obvious that we had been missing a key element from our planning and development process. It’s going to ... ensure the future of Jacksonville,” said Jocie Wall, who served on the council from 2013 through 2016. She voiced concerns during that time about a lack of input from locals on the efforts to revise the codes.

A five-year project to revise the development codes, particularly those related to actions in the historic district, ground to a halt two years ago when residents complained that the process lacked input from the public.

City Council last year created a committee to review and revise the city’s Comprehensive Plan chapter that governs participation from the public.

A five-member Citizens Advisory Committee has labored since summer of 2018 on chapter one, which specifics how locals will be involved in the land-use process.

Their efforts have been assisted by a Committee on Citizen Involvement, a group that was reinstated 18 months ago after it was inactive for a number of years.

Minor revisions to the draft are now being made before it is sent to the Department of Land Conservation and Development, said city Planning Director Ian Foster. The department has 35 days to review the document and may not offer any comments, he said.

Once past that time frame, study sessions would be scheduled with the Planning Commission, which would hold a public hearing before making a recommendation on changes to the City Council. The council would also hold a hearing before potential adoption.

“A lot of the work was intended to clarify some of the procedural pieces. There were some ... questions about appointment of CACs and who is responsible. There was some conflicting language,” said Foster. One goal is to provide an engagement program that will be sustainable, he said.

“During the course of our review, we identified some ambiguities and certain inconsistencies that existed within the document. When changes appeared necessary, there was often spirited discussion,” wrote Scott Selbe, a member of the CAC.

If chapter one revisions are adopted, the staff would see what council wishes to do about revising the development code, Foster said. The current code brings confusion in finding answers to development questions, with a need to often look in three or four different sections of current codes, according to planning officials, builders and the public.

Former Councilor Brad Bennington is optimistic that more understandable development codes will emerge, but he says the halt in work was brought about by a small group.

“It turns out in Jacksonville there’s a few people that don’t want anything to change for any reasons at all,” said Bennington. “They were very skillful in involving other people.”

“I think the (revision) effort in and of itself is a good thing,” said Bennington. As documents age, they need revision to ensure they meet their intended goals, he said.

“My understanding of it is the work they have done is collaborative,” said Bennington. “It’s been good work. I look forward to what they have come up with.”

The planning codes and historical codes have developed inconsistencies over the years, said Bennington. He hopes that a new development code would make intents clear and a doesn’t think there would be many changes to what can and cannot be done.

“I think in actuality our codes have to be unique. They cannot just be imported from a model,” said Wall. “Jacksonville is not a model community. It has to be recognized that it’s historic.”

People who are interested in the community continue to move to town and show interest in how decisions are made, said Wall.

“I think they are on the right track. It takes good leadership to maintain these committees,” said Wall. “I hope Jacksonville continues to attract that kind of leadership.”

Reach Ashland freelance writer Tony Boom at tboomwriter@gmail.com.

Downtown Jacksonville is a busy place during the town's annual Victorian Christmas celebration, which kicks off Thanksgiving weekend.