The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

February 21, 2013

Planning Commission considering lowering fees

Kathy Mellott

EBENSBURG — The staff of the Cambria County Planning Commission is continuing to review all levels of land planning and subdivision plans for the 29 municipalities with subdivision ordinances, but talks continue over the fees charged, with growing support to reduce the level of some.

“My recommendation would be to lower the fees a little bit for some of the simpler projects,” Ethan Imhoff, the county’s planning commission executive director, said Thursday.

“Our board are reasonable folks and I think they will go along with it.”

The county planning commission likely will not back down on review of all subdivision and land plans, officials said.

The issue of the recently imposed review requirement and fee schedule was to be hashed out Thursday when the full commission was to meet in Ebensburg, but weather and other factors kept a majority of the members away, forcing cancellation of the monthly meeting.

The outcome of the discussion was anticipated by officials from a number of municipalities who last week objected to the new review requirement and the fee, especially the $100 to $125 being charged for staff of the county agency to review simple subdivision plans and lot line revisions.

Many voiced their objections not only to the fees the planning commission is charging, but also to the need for a review, something they and their residents have not had to deal with in the past.

Earlier this year, the planning commission notified municipalities with subdivision and zoning ordinances that all plans would need its review and stamp.

The commission staff is not approving the subdivision and land planning proposals,  but rather offering review to make sure they fit the countywide comprehensive plan, Imhoff said.

Prior to the first of the year, review and approval by local officials and zoning commissions was all that was needed. However, the county agency was at times asked to review larger proposed housing and commercial developments.

Imhoff, who began heading the agency in the fall, said the review process is one that state law allows and is already in place with all other fourth-class counties in the state.

It is one way of protecting the municipalities, through a second review, in the event of a lawsuit, he said.

Also, the fees at current levels are projected to generate $10,000 annually, money that would help the agency offset a budget shortfall, Imhoff said.

Adams Township Supervisor B.J. Smith, who led the charge in opposing the review and fees, said Thursday that he still questions the need for the county agency’s involvement, but that the review would be a lot more palatable if some of the fees are addressed.

“Even if they will give the people a break on the fees for the simpler projects,” he said. “We’re hoping for some relief.”

Smith estimated that about 90 percent of the documents the Adams Township officials review fall into the category of simpler projects.

The county planning staff will work with the municipalities and not against them in an effort to speed up the review process, he said.

Reviews will not necessarily require repeated trips to Ebensburg because plans and proposals can be sent through the mail, by email or fax, he said Thursday. His staff also is willing to travel to municipalities involved in an effort to speed up the review process.

“We’re committed to minimizing any time delays involved,” he said. “We’re committed to making sure this isn’t a bureaucratic obstacle to their projects.”

The reviews the county offers will be on a broader scope than those done locally, Imhoff said.

“We’re looking at the plans and the larger impact on the county.”

Citing an example, Imhoff said his staff will look at potential environmental issues such as steep slopes or relationship to a watershed.

“Watersheds don’t follow local boundaries. That’s why we want to look at things regionally.”

The planning commission will next meet on March 21 and the review fees imposed two months ago will remain in place until further action, Imhoff said.

The 34 municipalities in the county stretching from Ferndale to White Township that do not have subdivision ordinances are not required to follow this review process, Imhoff said last week.

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