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Dealing With Contentious Public Hearings

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One of the toughest challenges facing planning commissioners is how to deal with contentious public hearings. Most commissioners, at some point or another, find themselves facing a crowd of angry citizens, and sometimes angry project applicants.

Since public hearings can involve controversial issues, it's not surprising when they become the focal point for strong emotions. When the temperature in the meeting room rises, it can also become more difficult for planning commissioners to consider the testimony and reach well-reasoned decisions. Planning board members may sit there wondering why some of the controversial issues couldn't have been resolved before the hearing. From my own experience serving on a planning commission, I can attest to the fact that I certainly felt that way on more than one occasion!

Over the past year, I asked a wide range of planners what can be done to improve the public hearing process. The results are distilled in a dozen tips, grouped into two categories: Before the Hearing and During the Hearing. In some cases there are cautionary notes that go with the tip. ...

Before the Hearing

1. Consider Conducting Preliminary Project Reviews

Obviously, public hearings don't happen out of the blue. They're usually required for various development proposals, permit applications, or zoning amendments by state enabling laws and local ordinances. While the triggers for public hearings vary from place to place, most planning commissions periodically (and sometimes frequently) hold public hearings.

One common approach to reducing the likelihood of contentious public hearings is to have preliminary project reviews with applicants before the public hearing takes place. The idea is that earlier, less formal meetings can hone in on some of the aspects of a project that might be problematic, and give applicants some feedback before they get locked in by investing substantial time and money in preparing detailed plans and drawings.

One practice used in many communities, especially when a controversial project is about to enter the pipeline, is to hold one or more pre-application meetings. This often takes the form of a meeting at which staff provides feedback to the applicant, identifying potential trouble spots with what is being proposed. Several planners I spoke with found this a useful practice, especially when input from various municipal departments (e.g., public works, engineering, or fire) is offered in a coordinated manner.

Pre-application meetings can also take the form of a meeting held before the planning commission, open to the public. In some places this is called a sketch plan or conceptual review. These names reflect the fact that the applicant is basically sketching out in broad terms what they'd like to do, without providing detailed plans. Sketch plan review can be helpful in identifying potential concerns before the development application is finalized. At the same time, it saves applicants the time and expense of developing detailed plans. See Sidebar, Bar Harbor, Maine.

One other approach some cities and towns use is to have a more specialized advisory board -- such as design review or conservation commission -- conduct a preliminary review of the project and forward its recommendations to the planning commission. Often, these citizen boards have members with special expertise or training, and can provide valuable insights to the commission on challenging aspects of a project. The downside, of course, is that they add another layer of review, lengthening the process.

  • In Salem, New Hampshire, notes Town Planning Director Ross Moldoff, preliminary meetings (called "conceptual discussions") "can help flesh out the major issues by giving the planning board a chance for input, and letting abutters raise their concerns before the applicant is locked into a particular layout." As Moldoff further explains, "we don't have any criteria to identify such projects, but it's anything large or complex. Most applicants appreciate the opportunity for feedback before they do all the costly engineering work."
  • Carolyn Baldwin, a long-time New Hampshire land use lawyer, echoes Moldoff's endorsement of these preliminary discussions. Even though "comments at this stage are not binding on either party," she notes, the informal pre-application process "gives both the board and the applicant an opportunity to assess any public opposition and take steps to ameliorate the objections, if possible."
  • "There is nothing more frustrating as a planning commissioner," says David Foster, a member of the Santa Cruz, California, Planning Commission, "than to have a project come for the first time to the commission with six month of design and engineering work behind it and a vested interest by both the applicant and city planning staff in the plans as prepared." As Foster observes, "this often results in the commission feeling that they are being obstructionist to request anything more than color or window placement changes. "Early review of schematic designs," he notes, "can really open the door to much more creative thinking about things like building massing and possible variances that might allow for a better fit with the neighbors and dealing with site constraints."
  • Cautionary Notes: there are potential downsides to informal, preliminary meetings. Woodstock, Connecticut, Town Planner Delia P. Fey, AICP, raises two red flags. First, if there are no submission standards, applicants can come in with presentations ranging from "the equivalent of a sketch on the back of a paper bag" to "professionally prepared plans." Second, the planning commission may be "worried, correctly, about predetermining their vote and may not give very clear advice to the applicant." As a result, Fey notes, "the applicant sometimes leaves seeming to be more confused than when they came in."
  • Connecticut land use attorney Timothy Bates also advises that these kind of meetings should only occur before a development application is filed. Once an application has been filed and the formal review process begun, Bates notes, "it is inappropriate for discussions to occur in any substantive way outside the public hearing process" since they would constitute ex-parte contacts.
  • In Brookline, Massachusetts, explains Director of Planning & Community Development Jeff Levine, "having a 'design advisory team' of professionals who live in the community can be a good middle ground between just staff and the full planning board ... the only drawback is that residents call for a design advisory team on projects that are really too small to have this additional layer of review, but that is the exception."

End of excerpts

The following 11 sections of the article deal with:

2. Hold a Meeting in the Neighborhood
3. Have a Plan for Citizen Participation
4. Conduct a Site Visit
5. Make Your Meeting Noticeable
6. Review the Agenda
7. Make Your Introductions Count
8. Stay on Target
9. Have Visible Information
10. Allocate Time to Foster Useful Input
11. Stay Cool: Use Recesses, Continuances, or Multi-Session Hearings if Necessary
12. Show Respect

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