By Herb Meeker
News Report Staff
For about two decades, Greg Kemper has been concerned with setbacks, berms, right of ways, zoning designations and complex graphs and maps.
But he starts 2018 as the former chairman of the Effingham Plan Commission with more personal time. He was thanked by Effingham city government a few weeks ago when he retired from his position on the Commission that helps guide economic development for the city.
Years before, Kemper realized the important role of the Plan Commission for Effingham.
“For many years, Effingham was the number one community on sales tax revenue per capita,” Kemper said. “I remember going around to other small towns and their downtowns were a wasteland.”
Kemper was appointed to the Plan Commission two decades ago. He realized the position involved a lot of work and responsibilities, but he welcomed the opportunity.
“I was anxious to work with the Commission because you can get a sense of satisfaction from what you do for people,” Kemper said during an interview this week.
When he started with the Plan Commission the group’s efforts centered on encouraging economic development in Effingham, especially maintaining the downtown, but also considering other areas of opportunity. But Kemper and other Commission members were not just concerned with pushing commercial efforts over individual landowner’s concerns.
In other words, paraphrasing James Madison, Kemper explained his goal on the Commission was to do the best for most of the people, but “don’t forget the concerns of the minority.” That “minority” might be the neighbors living next to a proposed development project.
Over the years, Kemper as chairman of the Plan Commission, worked to maintain order during meetings drawing standing-room-only crowds opposing or supporting specific projects on the agenda. But those were exceptions to the rule, he said.
“Most of the Plan Commission matters are relatively minor, whether it is allowing a setback for the garage or approving a change in zoning to allow for a new business. Occasionally, we have a lot of people show up, but for most meetings the only people there, other than the petitioners and press, are the Commission members,” Kemper said.
A typical Plan Commission agenda packet includes a myriad of data and background on different requests from petitioners, covering dozens of pages for the meetings on the second Tuesday night each month. Kemper said Effingham is blessed with talented individuals working in the city engineering department, as well as economic development. The agendas are also available to the public through the city government website.
“The real work for each meeting is done by the city engineering department. All we do is look at what they do and then make our decision,” Kemper said.
Kemper encouraged the Commission members to not only read the agenda packet, but to get the lay of the land.
“I encouraged them to read the packet and visit the properties mentioned if they had the time. It’s important to decide and evaluate each item. The main question we ask is whether this is what Effingham needs and is it good for the community. And also if it hurts anyone,” Kemper said.
That last point has produced some emotional moments at Plan Commission meetings. Kemper recalls how many homeowners opposed the Pilot Truck Stop project when it came before the Commission. It was a classic example of deciding on whether the community’s interests outweighed homeowners’ concerns over increased traffic and other issues.
“We decided for the truck stop. Was that compromise extremely detrimental to the neighbors? Was there more traffic from Pilot? Yes. But Effingham needed that truck stop and it was a big plus for economic development in Effingham,” Kemper said.
He believes the Plan Commission offers a good opportunity for the public to support or oppose different projects. It offers a forum for people to speak out before the Commission renders its recommendation to Effingham City Council, which has the final say on these issues.
There have been sometimes when a majority of the council has not supported a Plan Commission recommendation. That has caused some awkward moments, but Kemper explained those council overrides have been the exception, not the rule.
“That is the nature of the beast. It’s not a setback but the way the system works,” Kemper said. “I think we’ve done a good job on the Commission. I’m proud of our work.”
He believes the Plan Commission membership and the current city council are on the same page regarding future development needs for the city.
“Over the last eight or nine years there has been a lack of lower-priced housing in Effingham. The city has steadily been working on changing that so young families can switch from rentals or from their starter homes. In many ways, Effingham has expanded too fast. But it’s a good problem because it shows people want to be here,” Kemper said.
Another issue before city government is developing the city’s south side and also deciding on the future of Village Square Mall. He also hopes his successors on the Commission are open to encouraging more development on the north side of the city as well.
Kemper has confidence that Effingham will keep growing economically.
“The future for Effingham is quite good,” he said.