By Polly Keary, Editor
When Dave Demarest drives through the city of Monroe, he sees it in a way few can.
Nearly everything he sees, he has had some influence over.
That is because he has spent the last 21 years on the city Planning Commission, making decisions that influenced and guided Monroe’s explosive growth through the 1990s and early part of the 2000s.
His next meeting will be his last. Recently-passed term limits and a new residency requirement have made his reappointment possible.
Friday, he sat down at Paesano’s Coffee across from Lake Tye and reviewed his long tenure on the Planning Commission, and what he wishes for the commission and city in coming years.
When former mayor Gordon Tjerne suggested a position on the Planning Commission to Demarest in 1992, Demarest almost refused,
He is a real estate broker, and worried there might sometimes be conflict of interest.
But Tjerne said that if there was ever such a conflict, Demarest could always recuse himself. And he said that Demarest actually had a lot to offer because of his profession.
At that time, the Fryelands area residential area and industrial park had not yet been built.
“It was just starting to be talked about,” said Demarest. “It was all ag land.”
As a Planning Commissioner, it was his job to debate land use designations for land within the town borders and to approve plats, or building plans that required subdivisions of lots.
He and the other commissioners would hold hearings on the land use matters, then make recommendations to the City Council, which had the final vote.
Since then, the Planning Commission has lost a lot of jurisdiction. In an attempt to reduce liability to cities, the state encouraged cities to rely on hearing examiners to handle some decisions.
So these days, the Planning Commission’s only input on land use is over rezoning.
Much of the rest of the time, the commission considers and sets policies.
One of the most important policy documents of any city is the Comprehensive Plan. It’s a hefty document outlining the city’s plan for growth. The city and county project how many people are likely to move to the area in the next 20 years. Then the city makes a plan for how the sewer capacity will adjust, where new parks could go, where housing to accommodate new residents will go, and so on.
When Demarest came onto the commission, that document didn’t exist.
It was a requirement of the Growth Management Act of 1990, and Demarest was among the people to write the city’s first Comprehensive Plan.
“It was a lot of work,” he said. “But in some ways it was easier than now. Now when you do an update, you are starting with a created document, and you have to identify what works and what needs to be done, and that involves a lot of difficult decisions.”
Monroe started its period of very rapid growth as Demarest joined the commission, going in a few years from a town of a few thousand to a town of nearly 15,000.
There was a lot of money to be made, and a lot of builders eager to make it, and Demarest, although he himself was in the real estate business, frequently found himself at odds with the development community.
“Take signage, for instance,” said Demarest. “A realtor might look at signage and say that more is better. But as a community member and resident, I may feel the opposite.”
And while builders strongly objected to impact mitigation fees charged to them by the city for the impact on the city services that new growth would bring, Demarest supported fees.
“Suffice to say there were times when the Master Builders Association was not happy with me,” said Demarest.
The most important things that Demarest got to do, he said, were plan for housing, parks and transportation.
“It’s important to have different zones to facilitate a variety of housing stock,” he said. Parks do a lot for quality of life, and Demarest maintains that the city still needs another park north of U.S. 2.
“We were trying to find a balance between preserving what we have and the recognition that growth is going to occur,” he said.
Even though a lot of the issues the commission debated were extremely controversial and emotional, such as where, if anywhere, to locate gambling casinos, the commission worked well together over the years.
And the longer Demarest served, the more he had to offer in terms of institutional knowledge. Today, he has at least 15 years seniority over anyone else on the commission.
But that experience will come to end after December.
Because of a residency requirement passed six years ago that commissioners have to live within city limits, passed the same night he was reappointed for a six-year term, he can’t be reappointed.
And even if he could, a recently-passed law limiting elected officials to two four-year terms would mean this term was his last.
He said he doesn’t think the residency requirement or term limits that are forcing him out are a good idea for the city.
“It puts the city in a box,” he said. “When it comes to finding qualified candidates for the Planning Commission, it’s very limiting. Before the residency requirement, they could have a candidate who lived one mile outside the city limit but could bring all sorts of value to the process, and they could choose to appoint that person. Today they can’t. And I think if a mayor is doing their job, and the council is too, there’s no need for term limits at the planning commission job.”
Still, he doesn’t think he would have sought another term anyway. But he will miss being on the commission, he said.
He hopes that a wide variety of people continue to step forward to serve.
“The Planning Commission should be a diversified body of people that care about their community, that are willing to put forth the effort to know or learn what they don’t know about the topics and the issues, and that are willing to be independent thinkers, who will engage in the process and contribute to the discussion that culminates in a recommendation to City Council,” he said.
Demarest thinks that he’ll drop out of city affairs entirely. He plans to still observe the process and comment from time to time.
And he’s glad to have been able to help guide Monroe through two decades of change.
“It’s been a privilege to serve,” he said. “I think in some ways I’ve contributed and helped this community grow.”