Thursday, August 11, 2022

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Planning board doesn’t want to hear from public any more

Four of five members at this week’s meeting want to eliminate future public comments

Notwithstanding their service on what is notionally a public body, the members of Burlington’s planning and zoning commission have concluded that they’d rather not deal with the public’s unsolicited input.

During their latest regularly-scheduled meeting on Monday, a majority of this appointed advisory board tentatively embraced a plan to eliminate the public remarks that they’ve customarily invited for rezoning requests, ordinance revisions, and most of their other items of business.

This move to effectively muzzle the general public was originally floated at a previous meeting by long-time member John Black, who until recently had also served as the commission’s vice chairman. Black reiterated this position on Monday, arguing that he simply sees no compelling reason to open the floor to audience members on every item that the commission considers.

Planning board member John Black

       “If they want to be here, we let them know there’s a public meeting going on. But the only reason the public is here, as far as I’m concerned, is if I have a question and I want to glean some information from the public…If they come, they may speak if they are asked a question.”     – planning board member John Black, who initiated the idea of cutting out public comment during planning board meetings

“If they want to be here, we let them know there’s a public meeting going on,” he added. “But the only reason the public is here, as far as I’m concerned, is if I have a question and I want to glean some information from the public…If they come, they may speak if they are asked a question.”

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Black’s stance on public input was ultimately echoed by three of the other four members of the commission who were on hand for Monday’s proceedings.

Member Lee Roane insisted, under the rules spelled out in the city’s unified development ordinance, that he and his colleagues “are not obligated to let [audience members] speak” even if their meetings are open to all comers.

Richard Parker, the group’s long-time chairman, observed that the commission rarely changes its tack on an issue based on the feedback it hears from the public.

Planning board chairman Richard Parker (left) and new vice chairman James Kirkpatrick.

“I think we do seriously listen to the people, but we usually go with the staff recommendation, and if we’re going to go with the staff recommendation, what good is it for the public to come and make a comment?” – planning board chairman Richard Parker

“The only two questions I ever ask myself is: Does it fit and is it good for the city of Burlington? And the staff does a helluva job . . .and I would say that probably 97 percent of the time, we vote [with staff’s recommendations].”  – planning board vice chairman James Kirkpatrick

“I think we do seriously listen to the people,” he added, “but we usually go with the staff recommendation, and if we’re going to go with the staff recommendation, what good is it for the public to come and make a comment?”

The commission’s usual deference to the city’s planning staff was just as apparent to the group’s newly-selected vice chairman James Kirkpatrick.

“The only two questions I ever ask myself is: Does it fit and is it good for the city of Burlington?” he went on to note. “And the staff does a helluva job…and I would say that probably 97 percent of the time, we vote [with staff’s recommendations].”

Somewhat ironically given this resounding endorsement of staff, the planning department’s top brass was less than enthused about the commission’s wont to roll back the public’s opportunities to weigh in on the business of the day.

Conrad Olmedo, the city’s planning manager, recalled the various efforts which the commission has previously made to encourage public participation. He insisted that a move to do away with public input would contravene the gains which the group has made by increasing the notification radius for rezoning requests and demanded that staff post signs on the subject properties before they come before the planning commission.

Planning department staff members Bri Smith, Jamie Lawson, and Conrad Olmedo.

      “I would suggest that much of the public comment provided here does benefit the city council, and it does help petitioners to prepare for the council…Maybe it’s about us looking at the policies of having people participate.” – Burlington’s planning manager Conrad Olmedo

“I am a little concerned from a perception perspective. If there are 40 people in the audience for a particular matter, wouldn’t the commission want to hear from those people?” – Burlington planning director Jamie Lawson

“I would suggest that much of the public comment provided here does benefit the city council, and it does help folks to prepare for the public hearing when the council takes action,” Olmedo added. “My own professional experience in the planning department petitioners is that an opportunity should be given to the public speak on any item that’s before the commission.”

Olmedo added that it may be sufficient to devise policies that limit the length and number of public comments to a manageable level.

Jamie Lawson, the city’s planning director, also tried to dissuade the commission from cutting the public out of the process.

“I am a little concerned from a perception perspective,” she told the group. “If there are 40 people in the audience for a particular matter, wouldn’t the commission want to hear from those people?”

In the end, the only member who unequivocally spoke up in support of the public was the commission’s newest appointee Charlie Beasley.

A one-time candidate for Burlington’s city council, Beasley had formally been sworn in as a member of the planning commission earlier that evening. Yet, this relatively newbie didn’t let his junior status prevent him from objecting to Black’s plan to strike the public’s presumed right to address the commission.

“Reading the room in our country,” he added, “two thirds of our country does not trust the government in any form. And removing the ability of someone to make comment to the planning and zoning commission is not going to give us a very good look…So, I think that would be a tremendously bad idea long term.”  – planning board’s newest member Charlie Beasley

“Reading the room in our country,” he added, “two thirds of our country does not trust the government in any form. And removing the ability of someone to make comment to the planning and zoning commission is not going to give us a very good look…So, I think that would be a tremendously bad idea long term.”

In the end, the supporters of a reduced role for the public chose not to make any immediate changes to their meeting procedures. The group nevertheless instructed staff to comb through the unified development ordinance to see what implications, if any, it has for public participation in the commission’s meetings.

Its members also asked staff to explore some potential changes to clarify the public’s role in these proceedings. Even Black acknowledged that he’d drop his objections to public input if the ordinance was revised to make comments mandatory.

“If you want to open it up as a public hearing, change the UDO, because it sends me mixed signals,” he argued. “Fix the UDO, and if you want it to be a public hearing, you’ll have no problem with me.”


Read the newspaper editorial page opinion on the planning board members’ comments: https://alamancenews.com/well-now-its-obvious-officials-we-dont-care-what-you-think/


Other coverage of planning board’s July 25 meeting:

Board’s former vice chairman falls short, 3-2, in challenge to depose chairman: https://alamancenews.com/planning-board-head-survives-former-vice-chairmans-failed-revolt-on-3-2-vote/

Board hears rezoning request for second location at former bank building for Zack’s Hot Dogs: https://alamancenews.com/planning-board-oks-rezoning-for-additional-location-for-zacks-hot-dogs/

Rezoning approved for changes to convert Davis Street UMC into pediatric clinic and coffee house with special needs focus: https://alamancenews.com/planning-board-hears-plans-for-sale-of-davis-street-umc/

Rezoning on Anthony Road gets green light from planning board: https://alamancenews.com/planning-board-oks-change-from-medium-to-light-industrial-use-on-anthony-rd/

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