Plan Commission vows transparency

COLUMBIA CITY — The Whitley County Plan Commission, sporting several new faces in 2011, is hoping to put its best foot forward with a mindful community.Newly-elected commission president Brandon Forrester assured the large audience Wednesday night that the board would go above and beyond to avoid even an appearance of impropriety in the months ahead as the panel deals with a new comprehensive plan and a recurring issue of wind energy that has blown across the county in recent months.“Before we proceed, we will make sure there are no conflicts of interest with every plan commission member,” Forrester said, to raucous applause in the lower level meeting room of Whitley County’s Government Center.The commission voted unanimously to seek quotes from several consulting firms with the intent of having an independent study done in connection to wind farms.The commission had been under fire recently from concerned citizens — many from the southwest part of the county who oppose the installation of wind farms — when a perceived conflict of interest was discovered involving former commission president Dave Schilling.Schilling, who passed the torch of the commission presidency last night, received payment in a lease agreement with Wind Capital Group, a company which is currently researching the viability of erecting 400-foot wind mills in portions of the county.The commission was also considering an ordinance governing such wind farms, which caused many citizens opposed to wind mills to cry foul.The commission voted last month to start the process of creating a wind ordinance over again.Meanwhile, the county hired a consulting firm, Ground Rules, Inc., to formulate its new comprehensive plan. An open house was held last night before the Plan Commission meeting for public input on the plan.Many thought more emphasis on wind farms should be included in the plan.“The purpose of the Comprehensive Plan is to engage the public,” said Brad Johnson of Ground Rules, Inc.“(It’s) to make decisions that are consistent with the goals of the community.”Johnson addressed the concerns of those who felt more attention should be paid to the wind energy issue in the plan.“It’s (the plan) not meant to be specific,” said Johnson. “It’s a broad-brush document.”Johnson said his firm began the process of developing the plan about a year ago.“We had meetings with interest groups because we felt like these groups were going to be important in understanding what’s going on in the community,” he said.The document being circulated is the second draft of the plan, or Draft B.Johnson said the first draft was reviewed by a steering committee. From the input being taken now, a Draft C will be made, which could take six weeks to complete.He said the commission should be able to consider approving the plan by Draft D.George Schrumpf, who replaced former County Commissioner Mike Schrader on the commission, gave input from the perspective of that three-man board, which also includes Tom Rethlake and Don Amber.“As a whole, we think it’s a good plan, but we are maybe a little concerned about the wind farm issue,” Schrumpf said.The other new face on the plan commission is County Councilwoman Paula Reimers, who was absent Wednesday night.Forrester told the crowd that the commission had received numerous letters and other forms of communication from citizens and attorneys representing citizens regarding both the comprehensive plan and the wind farm issue, as well as some regarding both issues.He said spelled out several common denominators from lists of suggestions from the public.Acting on one of those suggestions, the board voted to hire an independent consultant to study the wind energy issue.“I want to move forward in a positive way,” said Forrester.Ground Rules, Inc. will be one of the consulting firms considered for the study, but the commission is going to receive several other quotes.In other business, the commission voted Forrester as president, Dave Addison as vice president and Doug Wright as secretary.Schilling was renamed as the commission’s representative to the county’s Board of Zoning Appeals and Forrester will represent the panel on the Joint Advisory Board.