In the spring of 2020, many cities, towns, and counties across the U.S. held their first virtual public planning and zoning hearings. In some places, the first few meetings were a little rough, as hosts and participants alike learned a new meeting protocols and etiquette. But most communities adapted quickly and embraced the benefits of remote participation. Now, coming up on two and half years since the initial wave of stay-at-home orders, many local planning and zoning bodies are still holding virtual or hybrid hearings, using Zoom, Webex, or other video conferencing tools.
As Travis Parker, AICP, notes in the July issue of Zoning Practice, "Digital Public Hearings in a Post-COVID World," the pandemic forced local governments to tinker with the centuries old tradition of town hall style public meetings. And now that many communities have proven that virtual hearings are possible, Parker challenges planners and local officials to rethink other conventional hearing practices.
How Far Are Your Meetings From the "Ideal"?
Many, if not most, planning and zoning bodies are following a playbook for public hearings that predates not only the internet but also the telephone. If a community member wants to comment on an application, they must carve out time to attend the live public hearing. And as Parker notes, based on his experiences in Lakewood, Colorado, meetings are poorly attended or dominated by extreme viewpoints.
Allowing community members to participate via telephone or video conference is an important step in the right direction, but it may go far enough. Parker asks us to consider what the ideal planning or zoning hearing would look like if we weren't bound by tradition. And he suggests a short list of guiding principles that stress the importance of removing barriers to participation and using technology strategically.
Could Asynchronous Hearings Be the Answer?
The traditional approach to planning and zoning hearings does provide space for asynchronous comments (submitted by mail, voicemail, or email) to be integrated into the public record. Compiling these comments is a painstaking process, and the fruit of this labor is typically buried deep in the agenda packet for the hearing itself.
According to Parker, Lakewood made the shift to a true asynchronous hearing approach in 2017, with the aid of a new platform called Lakewood Speaks. The new site provides a single place for community members to learn about agenda items, view applicant and staff presentations, and submit comments online or by phone. Parker credits this change with a dramatic improvement in the volume and representativeness of public comments on agenda items. Lakewood still holds live, hybrid public hearings using Zoom, but online commenting has become the norm.
Parker notes that changing everything all at once probably isn't necessary or desirable. For example, Lakewood didn't change what it asked from applicants or put into its staff reports. It's just using the same information in a new way. Following from this, Parker's parting advice is to not "let desire for perfection keep you from doing better."
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About the Author
David Morley, AICP, is a research program and QA manager with APA and editor of Zoning Practice.