Two term-limited members of the Charlottesville Planning Commission will be allowed to serve a few additional months after their terms expire next month so that they can continue their work on the city’s Comprehensive Plan update, according to city staff.
The term extensions are happening despite city code requirements, pending applications from three residents and the fact that there is no record of City Council holding a public discussion on the matter.
Planning Commissioners Kurt Keesecker and John Santoski were first appointed to the advisory panel in August 2009 and were re-appointed in 2013.
Though city code limits commissioners to two full terms that end in August, Deputy City Attorney Lisa Robertson cited “common law” and said that both would be able to continue to serve in their positions until City Council appoints their successors.
Both commissioners had previously expressed an interest in remaining on the commission until the group had completed its role in the Comprehensive Plan update. City Council will ultimately be given the commission’s recommendations for consideration next year.
According to an email from City Council Clerk Paige Rice, councilors are deferring on new appointments for the time being, at the recommendation of city staff, so that the commission can continue its work.
She said three people have applied for the positions so far and that the application window will remain open until December, when City Council is expected to review them.
Santoski said his and Keesecker’s familiarity with the update process would be a benefit for the commission and the city.
“The Planning Commission team has now worked together for a few years, so we feel pretty comfortable with each other, and it always takes a little bit of time to get everybody on the same page,” Santoski said. “I think it really would be beneficial to the city to keep that team in place through the end of the Comprehensive Plan, and then from there, Kurt and I will step back.”
“It would personally be disappointing to me to kind of have to leave it at this middle point and not be able to finish it,” Keesecker said.
City Councilor Bob Fenwick said he is not opposed to allowing them to continue to serve.
“It makes sense because the Comprehensive Plan … is pretty important,” Fenwick said.
However, he also said he hopes that he and Councilor Kristin Szakos will have a say in who gets appointed. Both Fenwick’s and Szakos’ seats are up for election in November. Szakos did not seek re-election and Fenwick lost to candidates Heather Hill and Amy Laufer in the Democratic primary in June. Hill and Laufer will compete against five independent candidates for the two seats in the general election.
Looking ahead to his and Keesecker’s successors, Santoski said he thinks it is important to have commissioners who have been involved in the community.
“I’m not an architect and I’m not a planner — my background is social services — but I do think you need to have people who are active in their neighborhoods,” said Santoski, who works as the executive director of the Arc of the Piedmont and is a former president of the Fry Spring’s Neighborhood Association.
“The other piece is that you do need to have some folks who have an architectural background or a development background,” he added. “I really think that a good planning commission represents the entire community the way that they look at how development and preservation should be happening.
Keesecker, who is a senior associate at BRW Architects, said it’s important to have people who listen to the different viewpoints that come before the commission.
“The perspectives and talents of different planning commissioners kind of compliment and help the group function, but I think where the Planning Commission has done its best work is when we’ve all been pretty good listeners,” he said.
Fenwick said some of the traits he values in potential commissioners are an understanding of the processes involved and an ability to work with others.
Mayor Mike Signer declined to comment on the matter, citing the appointments as being a personnel matter. The other members of City Council did not return requests for comment.
The commission is a seven-member body appointed by City Council that provides input on development and planning-related issues, such as proposed rezonings and special-use permits.
Commissioners also are tasked with offering recommendations for the city’s Comprehensive Plan — an extensive document that provides guidance for areas such as land use, housing and transportation.
State law requires each city and county to have a comprehensive plan. Charlottesville’s current comprehensive plan was adopted in 2013 and will be updated again in 2018. A public engagement process has been underway this summer to gather feedback on what community members want to see changed in the plan.
Several public workshops were held in May and June, and commissioners and city staff members will have a presence at several local community events in July and August.
“A lot of what we’ve talked about before the Comp Plan process started … was how do we make our land-use map and chapter more effective to get the kind of community that everybody wants,” said Keesecker, who serves as the commission’s chairman. “We’re really kind of working through that with the different community engagement pieces and understanding more in detail what the people are thinking.”