The Commissioner — Winter 2012
Boone County, Kentucky, Planning Commission
By Karen Finucan Clarkson
We are a very hands-on commission," says Charlie Rolfsen, chair of the Boone County Planning Commission in Northern Kentucky. "We bend over backwards to hear concerns and make sure all issues that are brought up in a public hearing are addressed. All the commissioners have lived in this community for many years and are committed to making it the best it can be."
The 15-member planning commission draws members with varied backgrounds from throughout this 256-square-mile county on the Ohio River. The commission includes a university information technology specialist, a sheriff's department lieutenant, a farmer, a golf course superintendent, a board of education staff member, retirees, civil engineers, a home builder, and a restaurateur, among others.
Such diversity is one of the commission's strengths, says Mike Ford, the panel's vice-chairman. "It allows us to maintain positive working relationships, in my case between the commission and the school district," he says.
"We're a joint city-county planning commission," adds Kevin P. Costello, AICP, the commission's executive director. "Each member is appointed by the chief elected official in one of four jurisdictions." The Boone County Fiscal Court's judge executive has six appointments, as does the mayor of Florence. The mayor of Walton makes two appointments and the mayor of Union makes one. Terms are for four years with no limit on reappointment.
"The current composition is based on an agreement made in 1966," says Costello. "Until then we had four different planning commissions. It was a progressive decision back then."
In its quest to address planning issues as thoroughly and fairly as possible, commission members spend an average of 12 hours a month reviewing staff reports, visiting development or zone-change sites, and attending committee and commission meetings. They receive a stipend of roughly $100 per month. "When the economy went bad, the commission voted to suspend members' pay," says Costello. The stipend recently was reinstated.
Kentucky law requires an orientation for planning commissioners and Boone County obliges. "They explain the history as well as the expectations," says Rolfsen. "And they give you a variety of books — dealing with all aspects of planning — as well as KRS (Kentucky Revised Statutes), zoning regs, municipal plans, and more. As a responsible commissioner, it's your job to get up to speed." Commissioners also are required to log eight hours of related training every two years.
State law compels commissioners to "evaluate the comprehensive plan every five years and, sometimes, update based on changes," says Costello. "They act on zone changes but serve as a recommending body to the legislative unit."
Both Rolfsen and Ford find their service gratifying, but admit there are challenges. "Time is a factor," says Ford. "We all feel the pinch sometimes because our jobs are demanding. But we owe it to the community."
"With every decision you make there's the likelihood that someone will leave mad," adds Rolfsen. "I have to put my emotions aside — even if it's a long-term friend being affected — and follow the rules. You have to be consistent and do what's right for the community."
Maintaining Boone County's Integrity
"I think the issues we're seeing stem from the economic times," says Charlie Rolfsen, chair of the Boone County Planning Commission. "I don't know if we're digging out or treading water, but we're getting some pressure from segments of the community that are struggling, such as home builders. They want us to lighten up and cut corners so they can make a profit." An example, he says, is loosening the requirement for sidewalks on both sides of the street or allowing narrower streets.
"We are consistent in how we do things," says Rolfsen. "We can't compromise on issues of public safety or move away from what's been done in the past."
"We all want the county to grow, be lucrative, and provide opportunities, but we don't want to jeopardize the integrity of our county," adds Mike Ford, the commission's vice chair.
"The residential boom that we experienced five to 10 years ago has slowed dramatically," says Kevin P. Costello, AICP, the commission's executive director. "In the old days we'd have 100 to 150 single-family homes per month. Now that number is between 25 and 45."
"We have 9,000 lots already approved for development just sitting there due to the economic downturn," says Rolfsen. "Some of that has to be developed before we can approve anything else."
Despite the slowdown, Boone County remains Kentucky's fastest growing county. Its population jumped almost 38 percent from 2000 to 2009 and currently stands around 120,000. That number is expected to rise to more than 186,000 by 2030.
"We're still growing but not as significantly," says Costello. "And that's reflected in the focus of our comprehensive plan update. We're focused more on what can be done to expand the business base — either attracting new or expanding existing."
Costello says Boone County is fortunate because it has a diverse economy. "Toyota Motors has its national headquarters in our county and there are several other international firms here. We've had good results in the last year or so as we explore opportunities for economic development," he says.
A suburb of Cincinnati, Boone County boasts the highest median household income among Northern Kentucky's 12 counties — $68,369 in 2009 — and the lowest poverty rate, 8.1 percent.
Planning commission decisions play a significant role in the county's economic development. "It's quality of life, something we strive to maintain, that helps draw businesses," Ford observes. "We won't jeopardize the integrity of our county as that would only serve to limit our attractiveness, and that's not in anyone's best interest."