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Glenn Puit: Reprieve for a PlannerPrint

Thriving Communities | October 30, 2008 | By Glenn Puit

Longtime Benzie County Planner Dave Neiger now has a job for at least a couple more months, but questions continue to surface about the future of county-wide planning and zoning in Benzie County.

In the face of a sharp political backlash over Neiger’s proposed ouster last month, we can now report that the county Board of Commissioners has agreed to hold off - for now - on laying off Neiger.

“They’ve decided to extend my position through the end of December,” Neiger said.

But whether the county will retain Neiger for the long-term is unclear. Neiger has no commitment from the county regarding his employment past December.

With next week’s elections, the makeup of the county Board of Commissioners could change as well, meaning there is no way to know what Neiger’s future will be.

Also this week, the county’s Board of Commissioners Chairman, Mark Roper, and Planning Commission Chair Kathy Ralston, said they are planning a county-wide meeting to ask the county’s townships what they want from the county Planning and Zoning Department in the future.

The purpose of the meeting, Ralston and Roper said, is to develop a Planning and Zoning Department that is viewed by all county residents as serving their needs.

“The outcome I would like to see from all of this is the mending of relationships between the county and the townships,” said Ralston. “I’m looking forward to getting the townships’ input because what I would like to see (in county planning and zoning) is based on what they (the townships) want to see.”

Roper said he wants to meet with the townships before any future personnel decisions are made for planning and zoning in Benzie.

“That’s the first step — we’ll see what comes out of the meeting,” Roper said.

The political storm that swept through Benzie County’s planning and zoning Department formulated long ago, when dissatisfaction with county planning and zoning services prompted the county to secure the Crisis in Confidence report. The report, by two of the state’s most respected planners, urged the county to take strong steps to fix its planning and zoning departments and consider consolidating them under one director. Zoning Administrator Craig Seger was hired, and he and Neiger have since clashed repeatedly. Neiger has also been criticized for the county’s failure to update its zoning ordinance. Neiger said, however, that the problem was due in large part to inadequate county funding of planning and zoning.

Last month, the county Board of Commissioners adopted a budget that proposed eliminating Neiger’s position. Since then, criticism of the move has mounted, prompting the Board of Commissioners to hold off on letting Neiger go.

In addition to recommending that Neiger be retained, the county Planning Commission also recommended to county leaders that there be more transparency in budgeting.

Most of the work on updating the county’s zoning ordinance-a key recommendation of the Crisis in Confidence report - is currently at a standstill.

We’ll keep you posted on what happens next.