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You are approached by a developer who is considering acquiring a large parcel for development into a major retail facility. He asks if he can “bend your ear” a bit, and gain an understanding of how you might view a zone change.
Consider the following scenario: you are approached by a developer who is considering acquiring a large parcel for development into a major retail facility. He asks if he can “bend your ear” a bit, and gain an understanding of how you might view a zone change on this property to permit the facility. Since he has not yet purchased the property, he requests that you keep his inquiry confidential so as not to inflate the asking price for the property.
In the interest of wanting to be helpful, you agree to keep the information confidential. During the conversation, you indicate your belief that the zone change is a good idea.
Several weeks later, and before any application has been submitted by the developer you spoke with, a different developer applies for a zone change for property across the street from the parcel owned by the developer you spoke with.
What are your ethical obligations when you participate in the review of this proposed zone change?
There are several issues. The first relates to the right of people to have full access to information that is the basis of a decision by a public official. Whether one is in favor of, or opposed to, a particular development, people whose rights are potentially affected by your decision have a right to access the same information that you, as a planning commissioner, will rely on as a basis for your decision. They have a right to either agree with or dispute that information.
Second, individuals whose rights may be affected by your decision have the right to an unbiased decision maker. Reliance upon “inside information” is something that could create a bias in your own mind. Similarly, taking a position on a matter before it comes to a public hearing may reflect an inherent bias.
The first mistake made by the planning commissioner in our scenario was to agree to meet with the developer. …
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C. Gregory Dale, FAICP, is a founding Principal with McBride Dale Clarion, the Cincinnati affiliate office of Clarion Associates. He has managed planning projects throughout the country, and is also a frequent speaker at planning and zoning workshops and conferences.
Between 1991 and 2009, Dale authored 31 articles for the Planning Commissioners Journal, including 21 for our Ethics & the Planning Commission series, and others on a variety of transportation and zoning topics. Dale is also a co-author of The Planning Commissioners Guide (American Planning Association, 2013).