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Dickinson lacks planner

Concerns loom over the future planning and zoning of Dickinson as the amount of proposed developments and construction taking place begins to exceed staff sizes, and on top of it all Dickinson lacks a city planner.

"One of the things I do think that we have to do fairly soon, even though it's not in the 2010 budget ... is add additional staff to the engineering office," Mayor Dennis Johnson said, adding the number of permits and inspections to be completed is more than the city is equipped to handle.

City Administrator Shawn Kessel said a part-time city planner position will be proposed for the 2011 budget, a budget Johnson foresees as feeling significant pressure.

Kessel said the idea of hiring additional staff to accommodate for heightened growth has been discussed by officials for several months.

"I think what you're going to see is a request to the City Commission for a half-time city planner, half-time building inspector, because we have needs in both areas," Kessel said. "With all of these developments going on, we anticipate a great deal of building this year, next year and hopefully within the next five to 10 years as well."

During a Planning and Zoning Commission meeting Wednesday morning at City Hall, where more than 15 development plans were presented, former Mayor Fred Gengler said he strongly urges the City Commission to consider hiring a city planner.

"It's something we've never had, something we should have," Gengler said. "You're overworking your engineering department, your inspection department. This might only be the tip of the iceberg. I think the real activity has yet to come."

Kessel said, to his knowledge, Dickinson has never had a city planner.

A city planner would look at several things, such as present and future housing demands, zoning issues, annexation policies and land-use policies, and Johnson suggested the position also cover Stark County.

Several at Wednesday's meeting expressed concerns of "spot zoning," a practice of inter-mixing different zoning types such as low-density residential and high-density residential.

American Planning Association Senior Research Associate Jim Schwab said insufficient planning can leave a mark for quite some time.

"They'll (grandchildren) live with your successes or mistakes depending on how well the job was done," Schwab said.

One of the most important factors in a city's future planning is how compatible different land uses are with each other, Schwab said.

"You do need professional planning advice in a town of that size for a planning commission," Schwab said. "It's when that rapid growth is occurring that you really need some guidance as to how to design the community effectively. The growth is as much or more of a factor in determining the need than the actual size of the town, per se."

Professional training for an engineer and city planner is substantially different, Schwab said.

"Getting an engineering degree does not make a person a city planner," Schwab said.

Johnson said areas that weren't optimally zoned stand out in the community, but overall, Dickinson has done a quality job in planning the last few decades.

City Engineer Shawn Soehren said a city planner performs more legwork "behind the scenes," such as performing more reviews in platting processes and looking deeper into zoning options.

"Right now we're kind of basing it off what the developers and people are coming in and saying, 'Well, I don't know if that's a good location for that maybe you should be thinking about something else,'" Soehren said. "It's kind of more of a reactive than a proactive, where if you had a planner on staff, I would think they'd be looking at comprehensive city plans and routes and progressive development to make sure we make sense and we're tying things together so you don't end up in a mix-match of things."

City Commissioner Gene Jackson said while the growth is exciting, there is a need for some vigilance.

"I think most of us don't know how much stress this is going to put on our staff, on our city to review these subdivisions, to make good decisions about how they're occurring," Jackson said at an April 13 capital improvement project meeting. "These are things that just can't be taken lightly."