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County beefs up DSS staffing ahead of Medicaid expansion

Alamance County’s board of commissioners has decided to pare down the size of the county’s planning board and create a new county-level board of adjustment to deal with irregular development cases.

During a regularly-scheduled meeting on Monday, the commissioners gave their unanimous nod to a collection of ordinance revisions that will reduce the planning board’s membership from 13 to 9 appointees and establish a new, five-member board of adjustment to address matters like variances and code enforcement appeals that have traditionally been handled directly by the commissioners.

The commissioners ultimately approved these changes by a margin of 5-to-0 based on a series of staff-level recommendations that were subsequently endorsed by Alamance County’s planning board. The county’s planning staff had initially advanced these suggestions in order to bring Alamance County’s planning and development procedures more within the mainstream for local governments in North Carolina.

According to Alamance County’s manager Heidi York, the creation of a separate board of adjustment will be especially significant in relieving the commissioners of a “quasi-judicial” function that they’ve traditionally held in dealing with variances and code enforcement appeals. Whenever a local property owner has filed one of these cases, the commissioners have reconvened as the county’s board of adjustment to hear formal evidence and sworn testimony from witnesses in distinctly court-like proceedings.

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York conceded that the commissioners have rarely been called on to conduct these quasi-judicial hearings over the years.

“But as we continue to grow and our planning needs continue to expand,” she added, “there’s going to be increased demand for the board of adjustment to hear these kinds of cases.”

In the end, the commissioners opted to deviate slightly from the staff’s recommendations for both the board of adjustment and the planning board’s streamlined composition.

In the case of the planning board, the commissioners chose to authorize a nine-member body in lieu of the seven-person lineup that the county’s administrators preferred.

In the meantime, the commissioners balked at a staff-level proposal to attach three alternates to the county’s new board of adjustment. Matthew Hoagland, the county’s new planning director, had assured the commissioners that this apparent profusion of alternates is justified by the potentially sensitive nature of the cases which the board of adjustment will have to address.

“You can think of a board of adjustment almost as a jury,” he told the commissioners. “Let’s say you have a member who has a fixed opinion on an issue, or they’re the next-door neighbor of someone who’s petitioning for a variance or an appeal, they would need to recuse themselves from that vote, and an alternate would step in.

“The alternates really just come in under those extenuating circumstances,” he added, “where you have a conflict of interest or a regular board member has to recuse themselves.”

Even so, the prospect of three alternates raised some concerns for commissioner Craig Turner, who speculated that so large a complement may encourage applicants to pack the “jury” with people who are more favorably disposed to their requests. Turner went on to propose a lone alternate to ensure there’s no chance for mischief if a regular board member bows out, and his suggestion was later endorsed by other members of the county’s governing board.

The commissioners nevertheless resolved to make no immediate decisions on the number of alternates. They, instead, instructed the county’s administrators to solicit applicants for the new board of adjustment and return in December with a roster of prospective appointees.

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