Thursday, May 17, 2007

Here I am, once again at the other end of the spectrum...

For a variety of reasons, the Planning Board is contemplating changing some of its procedures:

The Planning Board is considering enacting a series of proposals that would alter, in some cases significantly, how it functions.

Many of the changes represent little more than housecleaning, but several members of the public urged the board to proceed cautiously.

"You are the voice and face of the public," said Alan Klein, a founder of the Coalition for Columbia's Downtown.

While several proposed revisions were endorsed by the public during a hearing last week, other changes raised concerns.

Klein said it is vital that the board not embrace revisions that make it more difficult for people to challenge proposed development and zoning changes.

Lloyd Knowles, a former member of the board and County Council, said the changes should be deferred until others have reviewed them.

The board in November initiated the examination of its rules and procedures, and the proposed changes were developed by the county Office of Law.

Marsha S. McLaughlin, director of the Department of Planning and Zoning, said the intent is to obtain "greater clarity on a number of points," and to have conformity in the board's policies with those of the Board of Appeals and Zoning Board.

"It appears that the Office of Law believes the problem is the community has been too involved," Klein said.

The most troubling changes, according to those who testified, include:

• Eliminating the right of the public at a Planning Board hearing to question witnesses for a developer or person seeking approval of a project or zoning change.

• Reducing to 30 days the time in which the board could revise a decision if "fraud, mistake or irregularity" is later known or suspected.

• Ending the board's biweekly meetings and instead scheduling them as needed.

I can't really speak to the second two bulleted points, but I brought up the first one on the Howard County Citizens Association listserv today. And because I'm lazy, here's what I said:
With respect to the planning board's proposed changes, there seems to be much grandstanding but little actual argument against the proposals. I'm not trying to defend the planning board or even influence their or your decisions, but I would like to know what, specifically, is so bad about these proposals and how, specifically, they shut citizens out of the process.

Reading through the changes and...[the] emails on this listserv, it appears that one of the main points of contention is the idea of limiting who can ask questions of the petitioner's witnesses. I don't see how in any meaningful sense this limits the questions that can be asked and who can offer questions. Citizens can still ask any relevant question they like -- they just have to do so through a representative or spokesperson.

This perhaps holds the prospect of expedited and more efficient meetings. I understand that dragging proceedings out is often an opposition tactic, but doing so (I think) also has the effect of keeping the less hardy (but no less thoughtful) away from such proceedings. That is, people who otherwise might be interested in participating in public processes don't do so because the processes themselves are too onerous and time consuming. The extent that such failure-to-engage occurs is unknown and not-quantifiable, but I have no doubt that it exists.

Regarding blanket denouncements of these changes: I would urge you to read the entire document [note: I can't find the proposal online but if you want it, send me an email]. There are some parts that actually make the process more accessible to citizens -- namely, the provision allowing them to sign up to testify up to the end of the petitioner's case (you currently must sign up on the first day of the hearing in order to testify).
Any thoughts?

Yes, I realize this is a lame attempt to get more content up. Eh, it's almost Friday.

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