Down economy, election could create empty seats for Steamboat Planning Commission | SteamboatToday.com

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Down economy, election could create empty seats for Steamboat Planning Commission

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated from its original version to confirm that Curtis Church has moved from the area and resigned his seat on the Steamboat Springs Planning Commission. Like Karen Dixon, Church cited a lack of professional jobs as the reason for his departure from Steamboat Springs.

The city's planning commission could see three vacancies in coming weeks amid a down economy, shrinking job market and an open City Council seat that's drawn far more interest than those that were up for grabs in the general election last fall.

Steamboat Springs Planning Commissioner Karen Dixon said last week that she'll soon be resigning her seat and leaving the area, "because there's no work here in Steamboat." Commissioner Curtis Church has already left and started a new job Monday at a telecommunications firm in Ohio. Church said he sent his Planning Commission resignation letter to city officials Friday.

"I've essentially left the (Yampa) Valley for a lack of professional work in Steamboat Springs," Church said.

Dixon said her husband, a TIC employee, has a two-year job supervising construction of a power plant in North Carolina. He'll likely be full time there by the end of August, she said, meaning the move should happen within weeks. The decreasing local job market is having increasing impacts on Steamboat Springs, possibly including a negative effect on the availability or willingness of volunteer public servants.

"This is the problem currently with Steamboat — many of us professionals can't find work here," Dixon said. "You gotta go where the work is. Paradise is great, when you can work in it."

Deputy City Manager Wendy DuBord said the decrease in local jobs is noticeable. Routt County hit more than 10 percent unemployment in May, marking the month's highest unemployment rate since May 1992. Sunday's Steamboat Pilot & Today included legal notices of 36 property foreclosures. While many of those foreclosures appeared likely to involve second homes owned by people outside the area, the impact is felt nonetheless.

"Just like every place else in the country, we've got much higher unemployment in the past year — we all know of layoffs and reduction in force," DuBord said. "It's happened at the city and the county, and we're all experiencing it. The private sector is also the same. There just aren't as many jobs in any field as there was before the economy took this downturn."

The recession could be reducing the amount of time or energy people have for public service. Planning Commissioner Rich Levy said the city's various volunteer boards and commissions have had "a lack of willing participants" recently.

"Over the last couple of years, we haven't had the kind of interest we'd thought — we've had openings that we haven't been able to fill because of a lack of applicants," Levy said. "From a civic perspective, I find that disheartening."

Meanwhile, three planning commissioners — Cedar Beauregard, Levy and Kathi Meyer — have applied for the Steamboat Springs City Council seat that former Councilman Jim Engelken vacated July 6. A total of six people had applied for the paid, at-large seat as of late last week. Kyle Pietras, Kevin Kaminski and John Palmer also have applied. City Council is scheduled to make an appointment Aug. 3.

Whom the council appoints is not a certainty, but a possibility exists for an appointment creating a third Planning Commission vacancy.

Councilman Walter Magill ran unopposed in the District 3 City Council race in the fall, a point he mentioned Sunday.

"I'm kind of surprised in the interest in this one-year position, as opposed to the general election where I ran unopposed," Magill said. "The reading would be then, are people that afraid of an election?"

Magill speculated that the cost and time of a campaign could be intimidating. Whatever the reason, the at-large seat currently on the table has drawn significantly more candidates than any of last fall's races. The District 1 and District 2 contests, and the at-large race, included two candidates each.

If City Council appoints a planning commissioner to the seat, and Dixon joins Church in a move out of state, there would be three empty seats on the commission that guides local development and community planning.

The scenario couldn't happen at a better time.

"They would have to immediately advertise and get someone else on Planning Commission," DuBord said about such a situation. "I guess the only positive thing is we don't have a lot of development permits going through the planning process right now."

Magill also noted that the snail's pace of local development means the Planning Commission could weather some vacancies. DuBord said the seven-member commission, which also has an alternate, could "function for some time with just a quorum" of four.

But Planning Commission vacancies, contrary to City Council seats that don't require an election, could be hard to fill given the recent trends.

Levy said Planning Commis­sion service involves, on average, two monthly hearings of about four hours each, two monthly work sessions totaling about four hours, and "homework time" of two to three hours per hearing. The workload varies depending on the scope and amount of development proposals on the table.

Levy said commissioners, though unpaid, do receive a punch-card for rounds at Hay­maker Golf Course and a pass to Howelsen Hill in the winter.

The Planning Commission has a public work session at noon today in Centennial Hall, to discuss its priorities for coming months.

— To reach Mike Lawrence, call 871-4233 or e-mail mlawrence@steamboatpilot.com