Volatility at planning commission

Saratoga Planning Commission discussion heated over flammable material storage measures, mobile home/RV ordinance revision nearing completion


“Shut the f---ers down, man!”

An outburst from Saratoga resident Chris Shannon, followed by a request from chairman Jon Nelson to leave the room, during the Saratoga Planning Commission meeting at 5:30 p.m. on May 8 at the Saratoga Town Hall highlighted the tense discussions that have taken place since the Saratoga Forest Management sawmill fire nearly a month ago.

The, at times, heated exchange between Shannon and Nelson came during a conversation about the planning commission’s role when it comes to the safety of the town in terms of enforcing the zoning ordinances.

With more full chairs than empty in the meeting room of the town hall, the planning commission also held two public hearings on special use permit applications and presented the newest rewrite of chapter 18.57.

Exchanging Heat

Before the planning commission approved the May 8 agenda, town council representative Will Faust asked to add under “new business” the discussion of fire safety as it pertains to the planning commission. The amended agenda was approved and, after approval of the minutes from the previous meeting, Nelson read correspondence from resident Sandy Gove about the recent fire.

In the email, Gove asked the planning commission to clarify “the zoning and building codes which apply to the mill given its proximity to the residential area. Setback rules, storage, height rules and limits to outdoor storage. Specifically to sawdust and timbers.” Gove’s email went on to ask “As the mill is storing a large amount of flammable material isn’t there a requirement for adequate fire suppression plans such as access, sprinklers, size of piles, separation of piles and setbacks from residential areas?”

Before ending the email, Gove informed the council that she not only owns a house at Saratoga Inn Overlook, but also has four empty lots that she was having trouble selling due to the proximity to the mill and the piles of sawdust. Later, in the meeting, Gove’s email was referenced in the discussion about fire safety.

“I know that at the last town council meeting there were comments and then the letter from Sandy, I think, articulates very similar comments to what we heard last Tuesday asking ‘What is the town’s authority, responsibility? Is it the planning commission?’” asked Faust.

Faust then referred to setion 18.39.040 of the municipal code, specifically subsections “E” and “F” which reads “Fly Ash, Dust, Fumes, Vapors, Gases and Other Form of Air Pollution. No emission shall be permitted which can cause any damage to health to animals or vegetation or other forms of property or which can cause any excessive soiling” and “No physical hazard by reason of fire, explosion, radioactivity or any other similar cause to property in the same or an adjacent district shall be permitted.”

Nelson and Faust discussed their interpretations of the section with Nelson stating that he believed ‘whether it was an accidental fire like we had that was very catastrophic and very dangerous or it’s just somebody lighting off cherry bombs in their backyard. I mean that same interpretation falls into that.”

“Really?” asked Shannon. “How many people have mountains of sawdust in their backyard?”

Faust told Shannon that he was trying to get the conversation to that point. Faust then addressed Saratoga Volunteer Fire Department (SVFD) member Nick Cary, who was in attendance to represent the SVFD. Faust told Cary that he believed under title 2, chapter 28 the fire chief had the authority when it came to abating fire hazards and dangerous conditions. Under section 2.28.100 of the municipal code, the fire chief can inform the town council of a fire hazard if either the owner of the property cannot be found or it has been shown that they have not made attempts to remedy the situation.

Cary told Faust while he didn’t consider the mill to be a fire hazard, it certainly had “fire load.” He then brought up a group of buildings along Bridge Avenue as an example of other places where a catastrophic fire could happen.

“Take main street (Bridge Avenue), where all those buildings are connected, same deal. Flower Pot catches on fire, it’s going to go all the way through there,” said Cary.

As discussion continued, Faust told Cary that his interpretation of the town code was that there was policy in place for mitigating fire hazards and that the authority was within the SVFD in the form of the fire chief. Nelson then brought up other entities, such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and Department of Environment Quality (DEQ), that have authority on fire hazards and unsafe conditions.

“We’re talking about a specific thing and I don’t understand, after what has just happened, how you guys can sit around and try to slough off responsibility on this entity or that entity,” said Shannon. “We were really fortunate. Now they’re back operating the same way they are, they’re dumping huge mountains of fuel. So, it is part of your responsibility.”

A tense exchange of words followed between Shannon and Nelson in which Shannon continued to assert that the planning commission was failing to act responsibly in regards to the mill finally leading to Shannon’s outburst. Nelson then asked Shannon to leave the meeting due to the outburst with Shannon refusing.

“We could have had a catastrophic fire anywhere in the Valley like that mill fire,” said Tom Westring, member of the planning commission and SVFD.

“That’s not the point,” replied Shannon.

“That’s exactly the point,” countered Westring.

Shannon then asked the commission to consider title 8 of the municipal code, which pertains to garbage and refuse. Cary interjected, stating “They’re selling the sawdust. It’s not really refuse.”

As tensions and tempers began to cool, Faust addressed Cary, again.

“I think that with where our responsibilities lie, within the confines of Title 18, that I would just like to work together. If there is anything you guys need from us that does fall under our auspice in authority let us know.”

Mobile Homes and Recreational Vehicles

Nelson moved the discussion to the ongoing changes to chapter 18.57, asking Faust about the changes made since the meeting held on April 10. Faust stated the commission had talked about a lot of options over the last several months ranging from creating new zoning districts to rezoning areas that had high concentrations of mobile homes.

“What we are looking at today, this is not just a change to 18.57 because, as discussed previously, this 18.57 has fingers and a web that goes out to other sections of Title 18. This, I think, is a very comprehensive attempt to not only fix 18.57 but where we also need to touch 18.21 or the definition section of 18.06,” said Nelson.

According to Faust, language would change under RD 6000 in regards to recreational vehicles within the district, allowing RVs in the zoned district only if within permitted RV parks. Additionally, a new chapter, 18.58, would be created to allow the permitting of recreational vehicles parks and would be referenced in section 18.21.020 of the municipal code.

Faust then handed the discussion over to Nelson to discuss spacing and setbacks within mobile home parks. Nelson stated that he had used Medicine Waters mobile home park as a “working example” for the rewrite of 18.57. He added that the setbacks, density and spacing were all very consistent.

With the discussion going back to Faust, he added that he had borrowed language from the ordinance for special use permits for the permitting of mobile home parks or recreational vehicle parks. Instead of a 300 foot radius, however, the permit would only require signatures from those within a 250 foot radius. According to Faust, this is a standard that the planning commission will be changing as they continue to clean up ordinances.

“Big changes are: removing references to the health department, the application goes through the same petition and hearing process as with other special uses. One of the big things I’ve been concerned with and kind of harped on is having adequate water and sewer,” said Nelson. “We don’t want to overload our utilities as we look at, not just the community master plan, but the joint powers board water and sewer master plan. Things are all sized and the system is designed for certain densities and usage in the mains.”

On the same subject, Faust added that permits for either mobile home parks or recreational vehicles would require signatures from the mayor, the police chief and the fire chief and used the inadequate fire hydrants at Medicine Waters for his reasoning for the additional signatures.

It was also brought up what a developer would need to do should they be looking at developing a mobile home park that would also allow recreational vehicles.

“I think, the way I’m reading this, recreational vehicles inside RD 6000 are not permitted for permanent occupancy unless they are in a recreational vehicle park. If you’re a mobile home park with recreational vehicle occupants you need to be a recreational vehicle park as well and you need the permits for this,” said Nelson.

“From a business standpoint; having that mixed use, long term or short term, is a good way to manage your business throughout the year,” said Chris Duke, planning commission member.

The planning commission made the decision to send the proposed ordinances to the town attorney for review. Should the attorney approve the changes, the ordinances will then go on to the Saratoga Town Council for three readings before it is either approved or denied. The new ordinances will be made available to the public at the first reading.

In other business, the planning commission denied two special use permits for two different reasons. The first permit, filed by Beau Bangs, would have allowed the raising of two pigs on residential property for the purposes of 4-H. Within the 300 foot radius of the property, Bangs had to obtain the signatures of 19 residences and the Saratoga airport. With only 7 signatures, the planning commission denied the permit with the condition that Bangs could return with a more complete permit.

The second special use permit pertained to property on Southeast River Street for an RV campground. The new owners of the property, Venus Escallier and Greg Sickafoose, were in attendance and informed the commission of the improvements made to the property. The owners also told the commission that the use of the property had never changed in over a half century. With that information, the commission denied the special use permit based on the basis that the property was grandfathered in its non-conforming use.

With no other business to conduct, the planning commission adjourned. The next regularly scheduled planning commission meeting will be at 5:30 p.m. on June 12 at the Saratoga Town Hall.


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