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County land applications rise

The Wasco County Planning Department had no shortage of work in 2013, seeing a 27 percent increase in land use applications, jumping from 135 in 2012 to 172 in 2013.

Department Director John Roberts outlined the achievements of the year past and the strategic goals of the coming year for the Wasco County Board of Commissioners at the Jan. 15 meeting.

“We really try to embody the spirit of team effort in the Planning Department and operate with lots of transparency,” Roberts said. “It just makes it easier and much more efficient for everyone in the long run and helps us along in the process of getting them the answers they need to move forward.” While the amount of time spent on individual reviews varies significantly, the development reviews that required a considerable amount of planning staff attention and resources included the Watson application for a single-family dwelling along the Deschutes River, the Sevenmile ‘rezone’ and the Discovery Center’s renewable energy proposal.

“We get about 14 questions a day on average,” Roberts said. “And no matter how complicated the question, we always try to get back to someone within 24 hours of their first call. We may not have many answers for them at the time, but we do at least try and touch base with them so they know we’re working on it.

“Once while working the counter,” Roberts added, “we had this 15-minute span where we got a call from a pagan group asking if they needed a permit to set up a tent to host their drinking parties and dress up in renaissance gear, and then not too long after got another call, this time from some concerned neighbor asking us what the laws were concerning the burial of dead bodies in private backyards and whether or not it was a criminal offense to do so… Basically, you never know what kinds of questions you’re going to run into when you’re working up there.”

With an annual budget of $484,649 for the 2013/14 fiscal year, funding for the Planning Department accounts for 1.42 percent of the county’s total budget. According to Roberts, the department spends the most on covering the cost of personnel performing public service functions, processing land use applications and updating plans and regulations.

In 2013, the department was able to generate $85,357 in revenue compared to $66,409 in 2012, representing a 28 percent increase in fees. Combined with other sources of additional revenue, a total of $96,765 was raised, most of which being collected in the spring and summer months of 2013.

The department’s public service function means that they “communicate with the public on a daily basis,” and are open Monday through Friday with staff available to answer questions. In 2013 alone, the department responded to about 3,000 service requests that came in the form of phone calls, walk-ins and emails, with the highest number of requests issued in June.

Increasing accessibility to Planning Department resources was another focus of 2013 according to Roberts, who reported that the homepage of the department’s newly revamped website had received about 8,000 unique visits just in the last year.

“The feedback we’ve received on the new website has been enormously positive,” Roberts said. “It’s now a lot more functional and easy for people to use, and that’s seemed to make a big difference.”

County Commissioner Rod Runyon remarked that he had noticed significant improvement in the Planning Department’s efforts to increase public outreach efforts since Roberts became director.

“You guys have done a great job reaching out and engaging with the community, and we honestly couldn’t be happier with what you guys have been doing.”

As of Jan. 15, the Planning Department is still seeking applications for an alternate commission member and, according to Runyon, the position is “a great place to start getting more involved in the local community.”

For more information about the Planning Department, the services it provides or how to get involved, visit the department website at http://co.wasco.or.us/planning/default.html or call the main office at (541) 506-2560.

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