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Meeting attendees: Public involvement lacking

Written by Vicky Taylor, Public Opinion Online | Feb 6, 2016 12:56 PM
chambersburg borough hall.jpg (600x340)

(Chambersburg) -- Some local residents would like to see government officials make a greater effort to reach out to the community - such as by hosting public meetings closer to where  residents live rather than in government buildings downtown.

Civic leader Jack Jones and local entrepreneur Larry Lahr said during a meeting of Chambersburg's Planning and Zoning Commission Tuesday night that many people in the community feel there is not enough transparency in local government, in part because they often only hear about important changes in laws or ordinances only after the fact.

The commission was discussing a potential change in zoning along Main Street in downtown Chambersburg.

Although Phil Wolgemuth, head of the borough's land use and community development, said Tuesday's discussion was just the start of a long process to explore the need for zoning changes along Main Street in the town's Central Core district, Jones and Lahr argued the borough should do more to let a broader segment of the community know about issues that affect them and encourage them to attend meetings and things like public hearings that are often necessary before changes can be made.

"Our population has changed dramatically over the years, and we have to communicate (with these people) what we are going to do," Jones said. "These things affect more than just property owners. They affect people who rent downtown, and people who shop there."

Wolgemuth had just explained that before any zoning or usage changes were actually proposed, input would be sought from all property owners and businesses.

Jones, who runs Chambersburg's Elm Street program and is director of the non-profit BOPIC, said he felt the greater community needed to be drawn into the discussions also.

"You are saying we want to talk to store owners, but (you should) ask everybody to come to the table," he said. "We need community input and it's not happening now."

Planning Commission Solicitor Welton Fischer said the borough does make an effort to let everyone know about meetings, hearings and other things that impact them.

Jones, however, wasn't satisfied, suggesting that the borough needed to do more to keep its citizens in the loop on meetings in which things were either discussed or decided that could affect them.

Fischer suggested putting out Spanish versions of meeting announcements and agendas.

"I think that would be a start," Commissioner Lenore Wyant said.

She also questioned the choice of meeting place for government meetings such as the one going on that night.

She said many people in the community feel uncomfortable with attending a meeting that is held in the same building as the police department, and suggested holding periodic informational meetings at another venue, such as the community recreation center.

Councilman Herb Doloway, at the meeting as a member of the public, said he thought some people felt uncomfortable even going to the borough's recreation center because it is a government building, and suggested taking some informational events to other venues, such as local churches.

Lahr said he is also disappointed with the way the borough informs its citizens of important matters being discussed in public meetings.

"The process creates distrust," he said. "You need to reach out and share with the community. We are collectively interested in things and you are giving it lip service."

He said he had learned that the commission would be taking up potential zoning changes downtown through a newspaper article.

The article said one of the restricted uses in the downtown Main Street business district could include pool halls and social clubs.

"When I read about pool halls, I was puzzled," he said. "Sally's Pool Hall was once a cornerstone of downtown, so to make judgments about pool halls and social halls is (puzzling)."

Wolgemuth said specific usage restrictions had not been discussed yet, so those items were just a suggestion of the types of usages that could be restricted, not a list of potential restrictions.

Jones said his point was that many in the community felt left out of those discussions and decisions.

"I'm not suggesting we cater to a transit population," he said. "I am saying we need to be inclusive and embrace the whole community."

An ongoing discussion of usages of storefronts in downtown Chambersburg and potential zoning changes that would affect it is expected to continue at the March 1 planning commission meeting.

Before changes can be made, Borough Council will take up the subject, and a public hearing would be scheduled before proposed zoning changes can take place.

VickyTaylor,717-262-4754


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Published in Adams County, News

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