March 10, 2011 by wcobserver
By Susan McCarthy
WEST FORK- The status of lot splits approved over the past two years may be in question after it was discovered 17 lot splits were approved by a city employee without the review of the city’s planning commission. City officials have been unable to provide documented proof of a city ordinance authorizing anyone other than the planning commission to approve lot splits.
According to West Fork’s Municipal Code, Title 13, Planning, ordinance 357, only the planning commission has the authority to authorize lot splits. The city’s last recorded date for a meeting was January 22, 2009, more than two years ago. Arkansas state law requires planning commissions to meet at least quarterly.
Records in West Fork City Hall and the Washington County Planning Office reveal that in the absence of an active planning commission, a total of 17 lot splits were approved by Business Manager Michael “Butch” Bartholomew during 2009 and 2010. The lot splits include nine within the city’s planning area and eight within West Fork City limits.
Copies of the lot splits filed with Washington County Planning each contain a letter on City of West Fork letterhead stating “The City has no objections and approves this transaction,” and were signed by Michael “Butch” Bartholomew. Bartholomew’s signature is also contained on lot split applications on the line designated for “Signature of City Planning Office.”
“Lots of cities have an administrative policy. I’m going to assume if they signed the letter, they have the authority to approve that,” said Juliet Richey, Director of Washington County Planning when asked about the lot splits her office filed.
Cities can authorize lot splits to be approved administratively by a city official outside the planning commission, but authorization would need to be specified in a subdivision ordinance according to Jeff Hawkins, Executive Director for Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission. Officials at West Fork City Hall could not provide the Observer with a copy of an ordinance that authorizes lot splits to be approved by anyone other than the planning commission.
“I have not drafted an ordinance authorizing anyone else other than the planning commission to do lot splits,” said Rusty Hudson, West Fork City Attorney.
“I would have to research that,” answered Hudson when asked if having the lot splits approved without the planning commission would deem the lot splits invalid.
Bartholomew said past mayors and councils have asked him to review and approve lot splits that meet all the guidelines and rules of the city.
“There’s never been a resolution or ordinance passed. It was just added to my job duties. I’m not paid for it,” said Bartholomew who added that by approving the lot splits, it kept residents from waiting up to six months for the planning commission to meet.
Bartholomew said he began approving lot splits of three or less that met the city’s guidelines and regulations in the 1980’s when then Planning Chairman Walter Long asked him to and has continued to do so since.
Richey says individual cities have much control over what is approved within city limits and the city’s planning area and that administrative approvals are routine. But she says that a city ordinance must define the parameters for what kind of subdivisions can be processed without the approval of a planning commission.
While Arkansas first class cities are not required to have a planning commission, Arkansas statute 14-56-407 requires that cities who have established planning commissions to meet at least quarterly and record the minutes of the meeting, even if there is no business to be conducted. West Fork established a planning commission in 1966 according to Hawkins.
“I don’t oversee the planning commission. This issue first came to my attention when the new mayor brought it to my attention a few weeks ago,” said Hudson. “I don’t believe it is my responsibility to go to the planning commission and oversee everything they’re doing or not doing.”
Hudson said he is a part time employee of the City of West Fork and is paid hourly.
“It has been made clear to me not to look into things unless I’ve been asked to do so,” said Hudson who added that he’d readily research and review the validity of the lot splits if asked, but has not been asked to.
Asked what the repercussions might be if the lot splits prove invalid and have since been sold, Hudson said, “I’m not going to speculate on any of that.”
Seats Can Not be Vacated Until Members Appointed
Two weeks ago, city council members were caught off guard when Mayor Frances Hime moved to appoint seven new members to the city’s planning commission. Following the meeting, it was determined that three of its member’s terms has expired since the commission last met. One of those members is Charlie Rossetti, who has since been elected to the city council and can no longer serve on the planning commission. Mayor Frances Hime said she received a letter of resignation from Rossetti last week.
“The answer to that is that they’re appointed until their successors are seated,” said Hawkins when asked about the vacancies.
Hawkins said Arkansas state law specifies that even though a term has expired, the person who has served the term will continue to serve until someone new is appointed to the position.
Meeting minutes show the last meeting of the planning commission was January, 22, 2009. Charlie Rossetti stepped down as chairperson during that meeting, handing over the reins to long-standing commission member Anthony Allen. Minutes from that meeting note that the planning commission had not met since August 28, 2008 “because of lack of business.” City records do not have a documented record of a planning commission meeting since.
“There is a business manager and a council that have never asked where the planning commission is. That’s what bothers me,” said Hime.