12/16/2009: "A New Hearing Examiner"
San Juan County has a new hearing examiner. Mr. Phil A. Olbrechts, an attorney with the Ogden Murphy Wallace (OMW) law firm has been hired by the County Council. The Council’s vote to offer Olbrechts the contract position was unanimous.
The original hearing examiner for San Juan County was Wick Dufford, but the County Council did not renew his contract in 2006, and instead selected Bill Nielsen -the former chairman of the Growth Management Board- over Dufford.
The selection caused quite an uproar, as Mr. Dufford was highly respected, not only by the SJC Planning Department, but also by those in the private sector. Even when Dufford ruled against them, both sides were supportive of him due to his fair and balanced hearings; hearings that were always conducted with occasional doses of Dufford’s keen sense of humor.
After a total of three extensions of Nielsen’s contract, the current county council decided to make some changes in the rules that govern how the hearings will be conducted; rules that for the most part were standard operating procedure when Dufford was the examiner.
At one point in the council review of the proposed rules, Mr. Nielsen warned the council they would “need to look for a new hearing examiner” if the procedural rules were adopted.
The Council posted a “recruitment for proposals”, and Mr. Nielsen did not submit an application.
The list of ten applicants who did respond was narrowed down to three applicants; of the three, only Olbrechts said he intended to hold all hearings himself.
For this, and other reasons, Mr. Olbrechts is the choice of SJC Council screening committee members Rich Peterson, Gene Knapp and Bob Myhr, each representing the three main islands. In addition to the council representatives, the SJC Prosecutor, Planning and the County Administrator served on the committee.
Olbrechts currently serves as a Hearing Examiner for a number of municipalities, and due to his connection with the OMW law firm he has a large staff and access to the firms 40 some attorneys.
The Hearing Examiner presides over permitting and land use appeals. In the last year the Hearing Examiner Nielson issued 70 decisions, averaging about six per month. The most common appeal concerned condition use permits, followed by “Substantial Development” permits and Shoreline Conditional Use Permits.
Olbrechts said he expects his experience as hearing examiner particularly in Mason County to serve him well here. Mason County is second only to San Juan County in amount of shoreline it contains. He told the Council that in recent years he has dealt with many appeals involving property owners who built cabins or small vacation homes on the shoreline years ago and have now run into problems with required buffers and conditional use permits as they plan to enlarge their cabins to make them full time homes.
“I think this [job offers] an exciting opportunity,” he told the Council. “A lot of my friends dream of retiring in or someday living in San Juan County. Hopefully I’ll get to boast to them that I get to work out here.”
Based on his record, 90% of his hearings “are completed in less than fifteen minutes; but that is only the case when “no one except an applicant appears at a hearing, and facts are straightforward.” If Mr. Olbrechts expects that to be the case in San Juan County, he may find his record of 90% is in jeopardy.