By Tim Ashley
WARSAW — To one degree or another, COVID-19 has impacted government entities and forced decisions to be made sooner than originally anticipated. For the Kosciusko County Area Planning Office, which oversees the county board of zoning appeals and Area Planning Commission hearings each month, it has meant grappling with the numerous positives and negatives associated with technology.
For the first couple of months after the pandemic began, neither hearing was held. “We had looked at Zoom at first, but our board members felt comfortable coming in,” said Matt Sandy, assistant planning director for the county. “It really showed us how much of a digital world is out there.”
There are certainly positive advantages to utilizing digital technology such as not having to travel to meetings, which at times can be difficult to do. Sandy serves on a board himself in South Bend and acknowledged the challenge of the travel time involved and fitting that in to his schedule sometimes.
A downside is figuring out how to integrate all the displays often used at the hearings into a digital format. And the personal element is missing when a digital format is used. “You can pick up more on something said when the person is present,” he noted.
In response to COVID and to prepare for what potentially lies ahead, the old courtroom in the county courthouse is being retrofitted to accommodate Zoom meetings and also for streaming live online. And the sound system is being “beefed up,” Sandy said.
Foot traffic into the planning office used to be much more common, especially for those looking to obtain a building permit. But when the pandemic hit, Sandy and Dan Richard, the planning director, were the only two working in the planning office as the skeleton crew.
As much as possible, the two worked together to continue issuing building permits through email. That meant emails being exchanged back and forth. More than 100 permits were issued though.
“It was a learning curve, but it was still showing us there was construction going on,” Sandy said.
Discussions had been held for a while about making the permit process available online and COVID heightened the importance of making it a reality. “It showed us this is here, this is real,” Sandy said.
Online permitting streamlines the process and reduces the foot traffic into the planning office. The system is not fully built yet and is also utilized by other county government offices such as the auditor’s office, the health department and others.
As surprising as it may at first appear to be, more building permits were issued in 2020 (1,145) than in 2019 (1,074), but construction has been busy for several months now. Sandy noted there are more additions and renovations to houses rather than new homes being built and commercial activity has been strong.
There is still foot traffic and some days are quite busy, but changes due to COVID are obvious. The full service counter can’t be used because of social distancing. And Plexiglas installed and the wearing of masks can make it harder to hear at times.
Even when things return to “normal,” whenever that may be, technology will still likely be used. Streaming will likely still be used for hearings “because there is still a want for it” and some people will probably not feel comfortable attending meetings in person. Sandy also noted the county’s comprehensive planning process involves many people, some of whom can’t come to a meeting but could still use Zoom.
And there has been a push recently at the county level for broadband internet service. Access to the internet is even more important these days.