Council urges quicker delivery, more public input for comprehensive plan


COURTHOUSE — Amid delay in the process developing a new comprehensive plan to guide land use and development, members of the City Council say they want a quicker turnaround. 

The Planning Commission, supported by the city staff, recommends a comprehensive plan to the City Council. The one in progress, in the works for roughly a year, would be the city’s seventh such plan since 1979. Jeryl Phillips, comprehensive planning coordinator, discussed the process and handled questions on Tuesday, Aug. 11, during a presentation to the council.

The presentation came after City Councilmember Barbara Henley, who represents the Princess Anne District, requested an update. In an interview, Henley said the plan is instrumental in making decisions, so it needs to be in the hands of the council when members develop policies and strategies during sessions such as this month’s retreat and, perhaps more significantly, a key retreat in January.

During the meeting at City Hall, Phillips said the process has involved a number of meetings, public comment, and hands-on participation by members of the Planning Commissions, some of whom have contributed directly to chapters in the document.

Among areas that have received attention are sections on the transition area between the city’s suburban north and the southern rural reaches, as well as a portion that deals with the character of the rural section itself, including agriculture.

Under a schedule Phillips presented, the Planning Commission would consider a draft plan in January, and this would be presented to the public for review and comment. Originally, that was to have happened this fall, Henley noted. 

A final hearing and referral to the council might happen in April. The City Council would seek comment, hold a public hearing and potentially adopt it in May. However, that schedule, as presented on Tuesday, clashes with the budget.

“We can’t just wait for an information dump in May right around the budget process,” Councilmember Bob Dyer, who represents the Centerville District, said.

Henley said she was concerned that process slid by several months, which means the governing body will not have it to help guide discussion while making major decisions. 

“What slowed it down so much?” Henley asked. “What are we going to do in the meantime? … If you anticipate major changes in policy, we need to know.”

“I don’t anticipate any major policy changes,” Phillips said, noting that those involved in the process have worked to include the most timely information on issues such as sea level rise, as well as, in one section, expanded discussion of agriculture.

Mayor Will Sessoms and City Councilmember Amelia Ross-Hammond, who represents the Kempsville District, discussed seeking additional public input in the process. Phillips said comment came from 120 people at initial gatherings and 30 people through an online process, among other involvement.

Though the numbers discussed during the meeting were not presented as being all-inclusive, members of the council urged greater participation.

“What are you doing about getting more public input?” Ross-Hammond asked.

“We would appreciate more public input in this process,” Phillips said. 

City officials said communications personnel will help reach out to more people. 

Also, there are a number of public comment periods built into the process, including sessions held over the past year and upcoming opportunities during meetings of the Planning Commission and the City Council. 

The draft and revisions also would be made public, including online access.

“I think we have to think out of the box to get more inut from the public,” Sessoms said.

Henley said concerns about the process include light rail, which led to a divided public response to funding included in the current city spending plan. 

That funding and a property tax hike contributed to public frustration during the budget process. In previous remarks, Henley has noted that extending the Tide from Norfolk is not yet a certainty.

“This discussion needs to come now,” Henley said. “We need to find out whether this truly is what the public wants or will support. This train is leaving the station — or not leaving the station — one way or the other.”

Councilmember Shannon Kane, who represent the Rose Hall District, asked whether there has been detailed discussion of what kind of transportation citizens want.

Phillips noted that there has been discussion of specifics, and she said discussion included elements of multimodal transportation. 

Bike and walking paths, for example, were identified as priorities in a city that has a number of such amenities, with greater connectivity sought.

“I don’t want to put anyone under intense pressure, but I guess we live under intense pressure every day,” Sessoms said.

“We need this plan to council by December, because, in the January retreat, that’s when we’re going to be setting priorities as a council,” said Vice Mayor Louis Jones, who represents the Bayside District, noting that the retreat influences funding priorities for the budget process that follows.

Jones also said he wanted the council to have a chance to review the draft document before it went out to the public so they would understand potential issues.

When the discussion seemed to run out of steam, City Manager Jim Spore offered this: “I’m really pleased that the council really cares about the comprehensive plan.”

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