Stand and deliver: testifying at a planning and zoning hearing

Meridian City Hall, Idaho - Wikimedia, 12/16/2013

Meridian City Hall, Idaho – Wikimedia, 12/16/2013

The need may arise, or you may be called upon, to testify at a public hearing. For some, it may be as intimidating as a courtroom – perhaps in some respects like being the defense counsel, or in others, like being a party pursuing a civil suit. This pressure might feel overwhelming, but there are ways to prepare and educate yourself that may enable you to deliver a ‘pitch-perfect’ performance. That does indeed mean that there is a responsibility on your part (the citizen) to know the proverbial “Field of Play” when it comes to hearings, and it is the responsibility on their part (the planning body) to make the process clear and equitable.

Public hearings, to include whatever format your local Planning and Zoning hearing might adapt, are mostly quasi-judicial proceedings. So there is a structured process, and it is always more formal than a handshake. But, no one is going to go to jail at the end of the proceedings – generally speaking, of course. This is really between you and your community, and what is acceptable within that community. Whether you are in opposition to a proposed variance, or are requesting a conditional use permit, or speaking on behalf or against a planned development, keep calm and drive on. The following tips and links are not in any order of precedence. They are all important and scale-able to fit what needs exist.

Research the Format

Most of these hearings follow some form of Robert’s Rules of Order, and if unfamiliar might be intimidating to attendees. Remember – this is just a good housekeeping measure to make sure the meeting can be parsed and recorded with ease, while maintaining order and remaining official. Think about what a screaming room of disparate parties and adjudicating authorities might be like, and then imagine the exact opposite thing happening. These meetings normally have speaking turns (i.e. you, the staff, another party, and then you again), and time limits for arguments or points. It might be helpful to attend a meeting before yours or read the meeting minutes from previous hearings (that are likely to be posted online, like these from the City of Meridian, Idaho).

Know the Code

If dissenting or advocating, it helps if you know the pertinent codes being referred to and argued about. Sterling Codifiers is a website that may prove helpful there. If you can’t find the code, call and ask your local Development Services department or their equivalent.  The Comprehensive Plan for the city or region that you are in may also be helpful.

Be Prepared

If there is a staff report available, read it! The planning staff has most likely already done much of the research for you, even if it wasn’t specifically for you. They have probably a digest-version of the issue at hand with their recommendations (and why). Take advantage of this. Also, outline and prepare your comments. Remember, there is likely a time limit and highlighting the most important points in a well organized format will be helpful. If you are comfortable speaking, do so. If less comfortable, read a statement built from your outline. Remember to stay on point and not ramble. In some cases you may be with others speaking on the same behalf – just find out what is acceptable.

A final point here: it starts with the planning staff at the front counter. If Applying for a permit, the staff should be able to tell you precisely what can be done to make the process succeed. So in your preparation, remember that the planning department where you apply initially is an important resource.

Be Respectful, and Be Respected

The commissioners up in front are often people just like you. This means some very important things. First, they are probably volunteers. Second, they may or may not be planners – they often rely on the local planning staff for the expertise. And third, they are people who may have or might go through the same process (or similar) at some other point.

It certainly is a two-way street: for your part, your preparation and participation will be respected, as will your position. It is your time to say what you have to say about the issue. There may also be another entity just like you, opposing your view from the audience. That person also deserves the time and respect of the forum.

No matter what the purpose, the public hearing process can be intimidating. Doing a little research and preparation on your hearing will go a long way. If you are in Idaho, you can start by doing some simple Internet searches. These three helpful “how-tos” were easily located this way, and were used as references for this blog post:

Association of Idaho Cities:–21

Gem County Development Services

City of Boise