by Neil Erwin, attorney, Neil Erwin Law, LLC
Our team at Neil Erwin Law has had the opportunity over the past several months to present “Who Are You Calling Arbitrary? A Guide to Help Protect your Land Use Decisions without inviting Lawsuits” to planning, local government law, and municipal leadership groups as recommended best practices to follow based on court decisions and experience.
In summary, these recommended best practices urge that to help avoid the controversy and expense of litigation, land use decisions be made within a framework of a virtual box whose 4 quadrants are:
- Be Clear
- Be Consistent
- Give Your Reasons for Decision
Caroline Mladenka blogged on Part 1, Be Clear. This blog address Part 2, Listen.
The recommendation: Listen and give citizens their right to be heard, but follow your laws and procedures.
Why is this important? Because if you do not provide a reasonable opportunity for the land use applicant and citizens to be heard, you invite mistrust and a lawsuit for due process violations.
Procedural due process under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U. S. Constitution requires notice of a hearing and the reasonable opportunity to be heard prior to governmental action which “deprives individuals of ‘liberty’ or ‘property’ interests”. Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319, 332, 96 St. Ct. 893, 901 (1976). Land use regulation, affecting property rights, is such governmental action.
Zoning and subdivision cases, given their required public hearings (La. R.S. 33:4724 and 33:4725), inherently and properly involve appointed board members and elected officials listening to the applicant and citizens both for and against an application.
The right to public comment is guaranteed by the Louisiana Public Meetings Law (La. R.S. 42:11 et seq.)
It should never be forgotten whenever a public meeting is held by a public body that a provision of the Louisiana Public Meetings Law (La. R.S. 42:14.D) requires a public comment period by to action on an agenda item upon which a vote is to be taken. This opportunity for public comment should be clearly stated on the meeting agenda and announced by the meeting chair before each vote.
However, the right to public comment is balanced by the right of the public body to set ground rules, specifically, “reasonable rules and restrictions regarding such comment period.” (La. R.S. 42:14.D)
Advice: Adopt Rules for Public Hearings
It is recommended that each planning and zoning commission and local legislative body adopt rules and regulations for public hearings and follow them uniformly.
These ground rules can include:
- Reasonable time limits for comments (such as three to five minutes per speaker, or a longer period for primary spokespersons in favor and in opposition).
- An announced order of presentation by speakers, typically hearing from the applicant and those in favor first, then hearing from opponents, and lastly allowing a short rebuttal from the applicant.
- A spoken reminder by the chair of the meeting that all questions and comments should be addressed to the board or elected body, not members of the audience or through argument at the podium with the spokesperson for the other side.
After adoption of ground rules, the rules should be written down in a standard “script” to be read by the chair at the start of each meeting. Such a script can help the chair avoid losing control of the hearing, as well as showing a good faith and neutral effort to provide a right to be heard by all interested persons.
Remember, public opinion is an element in land use decision-making but not the overriding one.
Overreliance on public input to the point of ignoring a local governing body’s own ordinances and procedures can and has led to the mocking reversal by a reviewing court. WRW Properties v. City of Shreveport, 47,657 (La. App. 2 Cir. 1/16/13), 112 So.3d 279.
So listen and give everyone his or her right to be heard, but follow both ground rules for the meeting and local, state, and constitutional mandates.