At the Planning and Development Department in City Hall, key decisions are made on a daily basis. Many of these decisions affect neighborhoods in significant ways. They include issues such as zoning and annexation, new construction, historic districts, and other planning and development issues. For most citizens, these decisions don’t usually impact their neighborhood directly. But, when a new development or a zoning change does effect you, this is the time to make your opinions known.
The public notice
Maybe you’ve received a notice from the city about a new project or rezone, or noticed a hand bill posted on a neighboring property. This is called a public notice and lets property owners know of an upcoming application hearing. The notice usually has a contact name and phone number of a city official in the City Planning department. It should also have the proposed address of the project and a file number. This number could be a combination of numbers and letters, depending on your city’s coding system. With these numbers, the planning analyst can tell you what kind of project is proposed for the area. Call the planning analyst and ask for details about the project. Also, request a copy of the application.
The application and the review process
Before any project can considered, the developer or builder must file an application for a permit with the city. This application can be quite long and is filled with details about the project. As the application makes it way through the different departments , every analyst will add his recommendations to the proposal. If the project is an allowed use, these comments and more will help determine the conditions of approval.
It is important for neighbors to get involved in this step of the review. This is your opportunity to share your concerns. These concerns must be concise and well thought out; vague complaints such as “ruining the quality of my life or destroying my property values” won’t cut it. Tell the planning analyst what part of the project bothers you. Be specific and described exactly what kind of negative effect the project will have. He may even set up a meeting with the builder and other neighbors. You would be amazed at how often city officials act on legitimate concerns received from neighbors.
Know your city’s building and development codes and the comprehensive plan
The comprehensive plan is a blueprint of a city’s growth. It maps out areas that must be preserved, or areas where commercial development should be encouraged. Most comprehensive plans contain language that addresses the protection of residential neighborhoods. No city wants to see areas turned into slums, and those clauses that protect neighborhoods are usually quite effective in making your case.
Knowing the planning and zoning code and your city’s comprehensive plan, is a must in building a strong argument against a project that is wrong. Most cities have the building and zoning codes posted online; if not, they can be purchased for a small fee through City Hall. These manuals are often huge and intimidating, but fortunately, well organized.
It is in these manuals that you will discover if the staff analyst has followed the intent of the law, or has interpreted the ordinance differently than you might interpret it. It will also give you a pretty good idea if the builder or developer is on solid ground. If you don’t agree with the analyst’s reading of the ordinance, or have found supporting evidence in the city plan to back your concerns, then you can build a solid case against the project.
Testifying at a public meeting
The most important thing to remember is to keep focused on your goal. Angering the builder or city officials isn’t going to win any points. City officials will always listen to well prepared and well researched arguments. Preparedness is key when challenging any planning and development decision.
You prepare your argument by reviewing the application. Search for pertinent ordinances from the Planning & Zoning manual or Comprehensive Plan as they relate to this project. Make note of those sections and share them with the Commissioners as you make your testimony. Supply photographs which will help to familiarize the commissioners with your neighborhood. If the project is an allowed use in your neighborhood, be willing to offer up a suggestion of how the project might work in certain conditions. Officials always appreciate neighbors who are willing to compromise .
Contact City Hall before your hearing to find out where the hearing will take place and how long you will be able to testify. Arrive early so that you have plenty of time to sign in. Dress appropriately and turn off cell phones and pagers. When giving your testimony, stick to the facts instead of making vague complaints and generalizations. I always found it helpful to bring my written speech up to the podium, which kept me to the point and on time. Be prepared to answer any questions they may ask.
It always helps to bring other neighbors along. This shows to the city that several people are concerned about the issue, and not just one person. It is also good to organize your testimony so that one person speaks for an entire group. You may ask the commissioners for permission to let your neighborhood group stand to show their support.
In my experience, petitions don’t seem to carry much weight with public officials. If your neighbors can’t attend the public hearing with you, have them send a personal letter of concern to City Hall. It must be sent early enough so that the commissioners have time to read the letter before the hearing. Be sure the file number of the project is noted on the letter and don’t use form letters.
What happens if we lose?
If you genuinely feel that the project not an allowed use for your neighborhood, you can file an appeal within a certain time period, usually 10 business days. Check with your local City Hall for the time limit within your city. An appeal requires an application and an upfront fee. A new hearing is then scheduled for the next level of commissioners. In our city, Design Review and Planning & Zoning decisions are appealed to the City Council. You then present your argument exactly the same as before. Usually, only original parties of record can testify in the appeal.
People often underestimate the importance of public testimony. Some feel that they aren’t good speakers or wouldn’t be able to add anything of interest. Closer to the truth, is that hardly anyone shows up at City Hall to testify. Without the input of neighbors, city officials have to second guess what the neighbors want. Testifying in a public hearing is probably the most important thing a citizen can do to preserve neighborhood quality.