Council appoints local engineer to Planning and Zoning Commission

Tuesday, July 21, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 2:58 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 21, 2009

COLUMBIA — Concluding a three-month search, the City Council appointed Matthew Vander Tuig to the Planning and Zoning Commission at the end of its meeting Tuesday morning. The only council members to not vote for Vander Tuig were Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala and Fourth Ward Councilman Jerry Wade, both former Planning and Zoning commissioners.

The senior project engineer for Trabue, Hansen & Hinshaw will fill the spot left vacant by former commissioner Vicki Curby, capping off a process that the council extended twice, once because of under-qualified applicants and once because the number of applicants was too low.

By the July 6 application deadline, 13 candidates had applied for the position. The council narrowed down the list to five applicants — Jack Clark, James Downey, Lee Henson, Martha John and Matthew Vander Tuig — and interviewed them at its Monday night work session.

Other than the standard interview questions —  Why did you apply? How much time can you devote to the commission? What would you like your biggest accomplishment to be? — Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala and other council members made sure to get the applicants’ opinions on the commission’s ongoing work to create a comprehensive plan.

After serving on planning commissions in Virginia, Clark said he enjoyed the experience so much he’d like to do it again in Columbia. He added that he’s “worn every hat in the planning process,” and listed his experience as a planner, development applicant and planning commissioner.

Clark, who owns a housing consulting business, was adamant that the city create a comprehensive growth plan that includes policies to guide development.

“I intended to have a role (in the comprehensive plan) anyway, but I would like that role to be on the planning and zoning commission,” he said.

Henson, a member of the Disabilities Commission, said he would bring a unique perspective to the commission in terms of universal design and buildings’ access to people with disabilities. While he doesn’t consider himself an expert in development issues, he said he would be willing to put in 25 to 30 hours a week, if not more, to get up to speed on the issues before the commission.

Matthew Vander Tuig, who received the most initial votes from the council when they narrowed down the applicants, said his work as a civil engineer gives him the expertise necessary to serve on the commission.

“Currently, I work in a private firm, but one of the things I’ve noticed is I miss the public servant part,” he said.

When asked about comprehensive planning and form-based zoning, Vander Tuig said he thought that the city could save time and money by rolling some of its design requirements into its zoning ordinances, much like how form-based zoning works. But he added that if the city does eventually implement a form-based zoning code, it should be side-by-side with current zoning ordinances and act as an incentive.

“You can’t just flip a switch and go to a form-based, smart code,” he said.

Local architect, Martha John has had experience dealing with the city’s zoning and design ordinances not just in her private practice but also as a member of the city’s Board of Adjustment.

“I was encouraged by both my husband and other people, ‘Why don’t you apply for the Planning and Zoning Commission?’” she said. “I really had to think long and hard about it because of the workload, but I decided I wanted to do it.”

John said her experience on the Board of Adjustment gave her a good handle on the issues that sometimes haven’t been addressed but need to be addressed by the commission.

The final interviewee, James Downey, made it to the interview stage despite indicating on his application that Martha John was more qualified than he. The owner of a small book preservation company and a self-described artist, Downey said his experience as a downtown business owner and the president of the Country Club Estates Neighborhood Association gave him the relevant knowledge to serve. He indicated his support and excitement for the commission’s work on a comprehensive plan and said he would not be afraid of the hard work required of a commissioner.

 “I think it’s one of the worst jobs in the city,” he said. “Seriously. It’s got a higher level of responsibility, more meetings, more work. But we’ve got to have conscientious citizens willing to do it.”

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