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Site Visits: Necessary But Tricky

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Consider this scenario. As part of your preparation for an upcoming planning commission meeting, you accept an offer from an applicant to tour a site that is subject to a zone change request. After all, how can you make a decision about a zone change without seeing the property, and who is better able to show you the property than the owner?

Group touring a site, holding a plan map. Illustration by Paul Hoffman for PlannersWeb
Illustration by Paul Hoffman for PlannersWeb

However, as you are touring the site, you notice nearby residents suspiciously watching the tour from driveways and back yards. For reasons that you cannot fully explain, you feel guilty, as if you were doing something improper. Are you doing anything wrong?

In previous articles, I have discussed the concept of “ex-parte” contacts. Ex-parte contacts are those communications that occur outside the public forum. Before discussing site visits, it is helpful first to review the ex-parte issue, because it has a bearing on how to deal with site visits.

From a due process standpoint, planning commissions must provide equal access to information to all interested parties. If you are going to consider information in making a decision, then that information must be in the public realm, so that anyone has the opportunity to agree or dispute it. As importantly, planning Commissions must be careful not to give even the impression that they have information not available to the public.

… This is not to suggest that ex-parte contacts are necessarily illegal. In some states, under some circumstances, they may be. As always, I urge you to first check with your legal counsel to understand the law in your state or community. My concern is more with the appearance of impropriety. The integrity of your commission is paramount, and it does not take much for that integrity to be damaged.

Site visits are, in fact, a form of ex-parte contact, in that they occur outside the public forum. On the other hand, they are a unique type of ex-parte contact.

What does this have to do with site visits? The answer is that site visits are, in fact, a form of ex-parte contact, in that they occur outside the public forum. On the other hand, they are a unique type of ex-parte contact, for several reasons.

I believe that any reasonable person would agree that in order to make an intelligent decision about a particular property, a commission member must not only view the property, but the surrounding area as well. While many planning staff provide photographs or video of property and surrounding areas as part of their staff reports and presentation, this still cannot duplicate the personal experience of a site visit.

Thus, the issue becomes how to conduct site visits while respecting the sensitivities of ex- parte contacts. …

End of excerpt

photo of Greg DaleC. 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).

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