Hiring freezes, illnesses and a series of major legislative changes have left the Prince William County Planning Department and the citizen-staffed Planning Commission struggling to stay afloat.

The seven-member commission last week met with the Board of County Supervisors to say that it does not have time to provide meaningful reviews of all the projects and rezonings that are coming its way.

This year, the commission is scheduled to tackle a major update of the zoning ordinance and the county's first ever affordable housing law, and review plans for building roads and major projects. In addition, although the development boom has slowed, special-use permits and smaller projects continue to come in for review.

"The current situation cheats the Planning Commission of opportunities for input . . . {and} I don't expect this will change unless the board sends a very clear signal," said Commission Chairman Frank Milligan.

The planning commissioners told the board they cannot keep up the schedule they used during their review of the comprehensive plan for development that the board approved last month. Last year, the commission held 183 public hearings and workshops, instead of the customary two hearings and one workshop a month.

"The problem we are having is too much work and too little resources," Milligan said.

The supervisors expressed sympathy for the commission's plight, but offered few concrete suggestions.

"We're moving at a fast pace . . . . There's a lot of things that should have been done and haven't. We're playing catch up," said board Chairman Terrence Spellane (I-Coles).

However, the board did urge the planning office to rewrite the zoning ordinance to reduce the number of cases where a special-use permit is needed. Prince William uses special-use permits to control the number of high-volume businesses, such as gas stations and drive-in fast food restaurants, allowed in residential neighborhoods.

The planning office faces a similar work crunch, because it has to prepare all of the documents for the commission. To make matters worse, the office now has the equivalent of 20 full-time staff members, instead of the 29 it was allotted in this year's budget, said director Doug James.

Those statistics are somewhat misleading because many of the vacancies are in positions that are hard to fill. For example, the county's only archaeologist recently quit, and several senior planners are ill.

"Different people have different capabilities . . . . Some of our high-powered planners are finding themselves doing more," James said.

James and County Executive James H. Mullen are working on a plan to allocate the office's limited resources to the various tasks in front of them.

James also told the supervisors that they have to keep the planning staff's workload in mind when setting new tasks.

"Every time you ask a member of the staff to assist you, it takes five hours," James said.

County officials also are in the midst of an effort to speed up the county's process for reviewing rezonings and special-use permits. Known as the 270-day cookbook, the new schedule sets more specific deadlines, so that rezoning requests won't languish because an outside agency, such as the Park Authority, has failed to complete its part of the review.

The cookbook schedule also sets deadlines for the applicant and attempts to add "discipline and accountability" to the process, James said. In the past, getting a rezoning reviewed could take 400 days or more.

But the 270-day schedule has the planning commissioners worried because they fear that more meetings with crowded dockets will last until the early morning.

"There's not enough hours in the day," said Greg Gorgone, the Brentsville planning commissioner.