March 24, 2017

“Why Do We Have to Keep Coming Down Here?” – Public Hearings in the Planning and Zoning Process

Monday night’s public hearing on proposed amendments to the Comprehensive Plan was well attended and the participants and Council were actively engaged.  That’s a good thing.  Not so good, however, was a rather unhealthy dynamic that revealed itself in some of the comments we heard.  As Mayor, I feel I have a responsibility to speak up and address that dynamic, in hopes of facilitating a constructive community dialog and encouraging respect for all viewpoints.  Additionally, I take this opportunity to clarify the public hearing process and why we do things the way we do.  Note that I’m purposely not addressing the merits of the Comprehensive Plan proposal itself in this blog post, as Council has not yet deliberated or voted on it.

A Plea for Civility

Of primary concern coming out of the hearing on Monday night are the conspiracy theories and rumors that seem to be floating around unchecked.  The suggestion made by a few speakers in opposition to the Planning & Zoning Commission’s recommendation, was that the commissioners must be on the take.  That the only way they could have arrived at their decision is by having been bought off by developers with money under the table.

Really?

Or that there’s secretly already a buyer for the property who has secretly already submitted plans, and the recommendation is to secretly bless those plans without anyone knowing—all despite the fact that Chevron hasn’t yet put the property on the market and has only just selected a listing agent.

Really?

Again without getting too much into the proposal itself, I sincerely believe we all recognize the validity of the concerns and arguments that have been raised, and that they can stand on their own without having to rely on talk of conspiracies and rumormongering.  In fact, it just distracts from and even risks weakening the speakers’ arguments.  I respectfully suggest we can get through this discussion without resorting to spreading malicious ideas, and without questioning participants’ motives.  Including, by the way, those of P&Z, which is comprised of fellow citizens who volunteer to serve their community and do their best to make recommendations to Council based on a variety of considerations, including the public input they’ve received.  Ultimately, these decisions are up to Council, and P&Z knows that.

Our Public Hearing Process

Other speakers expressed frustration about the public hearing process, prompting questions as to why we do things the way we do.  "Why do we have to keep coming down here?" they demanded.  Well, the short answer is you don’t.  Now, I don’t mean that flippantly; rather, I’m pointing out that public hearings are your opportunity to have a say in city decision making.  You play an important role in the planning and zoning process, and it’s through public hearings that you can do so.  They’re a benefit to those who wish to be involved, and should not be seen as a burden.

Nor are successive hearings duplicative or a waste of time.  As discussed below our system is set up to maximize public input through two levels of consideration, first by P&Z and then by City Council.  That Bellaire has opted to offer more of those opportunities than the minimum required by state law is reflective of the importance we place on public hearings.

Amendments to municipal comprehensive plans are governed by Chapter 213 of the Texas Local Government Code, which requires just one public hearing, and "review" by the planning commission or department in cities that have them.  But in Bellaire, to provide for greater public input, we instead follow the legislative process for zoning regulations under Chapter 211, which requires that public hearings be held by both the Commission and City Council.

In my experience, this two-step process works very well for us.  Council’s decision making, and the public discourse, benefit from the preliminary review by P&Z, including that first opportunity for formal citizen input.  The fact that P&Z commissioners are appointed and not elected is actually an advantage.  It’s part of the design.  In their advisory capacity, commissioners are the subject matter specialists who take a good hard look at land use issues and come up with more objective recommendations, uninfluenced (or at least less influenced) by political motives.  It’s still up to Council—your elected representatives who are directly accountable to you—to make the final decisions.  Council is free to accept, reject or revise P&Z’s recommendations as it sees fit, and relies on your input through public hearings in making those decisions.

Some confusion or uncertainty about the planning and zoning process among the participants at a given public hearing is to be expected.  Most residents will get involved only when they feel an issue directly affects them or their immediate neighborhood, and so for them it’s their first exposure to the process.  Monday night was no exception.  But be assured that P&Z and City Council have lots of experience with it and that it works.  And it works best with your active, thoughtful participation, for which we thank you.

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