In a sign that the economy is finally picking up, Wasco County Planning Department’s director says permit numbers for the department are back to pre-recession levels.
“It’s been a banner year for traffic at the front counter,” John Roberts said.
The department has already surpassed the amount of permit revenue he had projected for the entire year of 2013, he said. That kind of activity hasn’t happened since 2007.
“We’ve been busy trying to keep up with the case load, especially since we’ve been down one staff person since June 1,” Roberts said.
A new planner is in the process of being hired and the summer peak is beginning to drop off, so Roberts said the department should have more time to focus on its long-range projects soon.
The big-picture work Roberts said is most important to him right now is updating Wasco County’s Land Use and Development Ordinance.
The staff is working on updating the first three chapters now, since each of the ordinance’s 21 chapters take extensive time, energy, research and deliberation to update.
Even though the ordinance update’s progress has been slowed by the amount of service requests planners have been filling, Roberts said the team has managed to complete several smaller priority items.
For example, those who use the planning department’s website will notice that it was completely overhauled for much easier navigation. County administrative officer Tyler Stone noted the new website is a big improvement over the former layout, which was “like trying to read a bowl of spaghetti.”
The staff has also been going through the department’s handouts and applications trying to make them simpler, shorter and easier to use.
They have made internal changes to streamline their own processes, revised the planning commission’s bylaws and are now working on creating a new fee structure, which they hope to present to the county commission in October.
“The intent is not necessarily to increase fees but to clarify some procedural things and to simplify,” Roberts said.
All of these efforts, along with previous changes like expanding the department’s hours and putting free Geographic Information System maps online, are part of the emphasis Wasco County has placed on customer service in recent years.
“I can’t say enough about the staff here. We take pride in our customer service focus and we’re trying to sustain that,” Roberts said.
In addition to land use decisions for individual projects, the department is also responsible for long-range planning efforts. One such effort listed in the planning department’s priorities is working with the City of The Dalles to expand its urban growth boundary.
Roberts said the county hasn’t done as much work on that lately but the issue “should get legs again this fall.”
A list of the land use decisions the planning department is currently working on can be obtained online by accessing http://co.wasco.or.us/planning/Actions.html.
One major development planned for Wasco County that is currently waiting for approval is the Brush Canyon Wind Power Facility. The developer is EC&R Development, LLC and the 76,000 acre wind farm will be located in southern Wasco and Sherman County.
The state, not the county, will be the one to give approval but the county’s comments will be given particular weight so Roberts has reviewed every page of the three-volume application. He said the developers are on target to get an approval in October or November, after which they can apply for conditional use permits from both counties.