The Commissioner — Spring 2013
Belle Fourche, South Dakota, Planning and Zoning Commission
By Karen Finucan Clarkson
The Belle Fourche Planning and Zoning Commission doesn't have a particularly high profile, but the panel is highly regarded in the community. "I think people here look upon us positively as a group that is thoughtful in its decisions and respectful of people's requests," says David S. Pummel, vice chair of the commission. That hasn't always been the case. "When I got elected to city council, the mayor appointed me to the planning commission, which at the time was pretty lax and somewhat of a good-old-boy network," says the three-term council and seven-year planning commission member.
The commission consists of five members appointed by the mayor. Three residents serve three-year, staggered terms with no limit on reappointment. Two council members serve one-year terms. Commissioners receive an $18-per-meeting stipend. Meetings are held on the first, and occasionally third, Wednesday of the month at 7 a.m., which tends to keep proceedings to roughly an hour. "People need to get to their day jobs," says assistant city engineer Steve Snafus.
"Our role is to advise city council, to do the groundwork and research so that we can make knowledgeable recommendations," says commission chair Jim Doolittle. While the five members of the commission rely heavily on staff for background and information, Doolittle adds that "we take the time to understand all the details and how things work. We won't make a recommendation to council until we have a firm grasp on what's involved. We've never been put in a corner or had to make a snap decision." The planning commission is supported by the staff engineers and building permit staff.
Few planning commissioners in Belle Fourche (pronounced bel-FOOSH), a community of 5,600 on the northern slopes of the Black Hills, come to the job with a planning background. Current members include an accountant, a rancher, a former city financial official, and former school superintendent. Training is primarily on the job. Staff provides new commissioners "with a copy of the comprehensive plan and ordinances and answers every question they can think of," says Snafus.
An open mind and a willingness to learn are among the qualities that make for a successful planning commissioner in Belle Fourche, according to Krysti Weed, the city's building permit representative. "It certainly helps to think out of the box," she says.
Pummel concurs. "Be open minded, be a progressive thinker, and be fair," he says.
While Doolittle derives a real sense of satisfaction from his six years of work on the commission, he is aware that there can be drawbacks associated with public service. "In a small town, it can be hard when you have close associations with people. Sometimes [commissioners] find that they lose business when people can't separate personal from professional situations," he adds. The key "is consistency, treating everyone the same."
Impacts of Growth on Belle Fourche from Neighboring Resource Extraction
Uniquely situated to benefit from employment opportunities to the north and west, the Planning and Zoning Commission in Belle Fourche "is preparing for growth that is orderly. It's not that we'll have a boom, but we don't want to be caught off guard," says Jim Doolittle, the panel's chair.
With a population approaching 5,700, Belle Fourche grew by more than 15 percent from 2007 to 2011 and 25 percent over the decade ending in 2010. Some of the current and much of the anticipated influx in residents can be attributed to the nearby energy boom. Belle Fourche, a ranching and agricultural community, is within easy driving distance of Wyoming's well-established oil, gas, and coal fields and to North Dakota's expanding oil production industries. The city's recent comprehensive plan anticipates more than 6,000 residents by 2030. Belle Fourche has grown from about 945 acres to more than 4,800 acres since 1980.
"We're looking to grow in a positive way," says David Pummel, one of two city council representatives on the planning commission. "That's a big challenge because sometimes in the past we've experienced haphazard growth that was not well planned."
As a result, Belle Fourche is seeking to partner with Butte County — which, according to assistant city engineer Steve Snafus "has subdivision ordinances but no real zoning," to create a buffer at the city-county border. Under state law, the city has the authority to control land development within three miles of its corporate limits. "Our comprehensive plan goes out that far but there are some people who don't like being told what they can and can't do with their property."
The plan identifies four areas for redevelopment: "Due to improper planning in the past and historic changes to uses along some of the major corridors. ... This redevelopment will separate industrial and commercial uses from residential districts and create buffer zones between those uses. Enhancing the major corridors will enhance the image of the community."
Another potential image enhancer and economic driver is a planned industrial park that will "probably accommodate manufacturing, though that's not been totally determined yet," Doolittle says. City bonds of $4.5 million are funding development of the park, which sits near the junction of two busy U.S. highways — 212, which runs west into Wyoming and Montana, and 85, which heads north into North Dakota. A Canadian Pacific rail line abuts the park's southern edge.
Looking ahead, the need to revitalize downtown will become more of a priority, say Snafus and Doolittle. "Years ago, with [the advent of] regional shopping centers, retail was driven out by larger box stores," says Doolittle. "Downtown has become a place to go for specialty items ... if you want to buy cowboy boots, you'll find them here, but as for shoes, that's something we don't have."
In the not-too-distant future, Pummel sees his city as one that is a "little less dependent on agriculture and a little more diverse in terms of the types of businesses," he says. "I think we've done some good and have the potential to do more ... it's not always perfect but we've done a lot of positive things. And I like that feeling of accomplishment."