June 4, 2018

The Planning and Zoning Two-Step

I’ve written previously about the importance of public hearings in the planning and zoning process, including some of the reasons we have two, first at the Planning and Zoning Commission and then at City Council.  As Mayor, I feel compelled once again to raise this subject, to call your attention to a worrisome trend that has surfaced in recent years.  Increasingly, it seems many residents are bypassing P&Z’s public hearings and bringing their comments straight to Council, presumably thinking it’s the second hearing that really counts.  While it’s true that only Council decides the final outcomes, quite often it’s the public input at the P&Z stage that makes the biggest difference, as proposals are further refined in response to that input before even getting to Council.

The point came up most recently at Council’s public hearing on the continued temporary use of the former Gordon Elementary/Mandarin Chinese school property as “Kolter North,” while Kolter proper is being rebuilt.  As before, I won’t get too much into the merits of the application in this blog post since Council has not yet deliberated or voted on it.  By way of background, Kolter Elementary School has occupied the site on a temporary basis this past school year since its Meyerland campus was severely flooded in Hurricane Harvey.  When the school district decided to rebuild rather than repair it, the extended construction timeline triggered the requirement for a specific use permit amendment to allow Kolter North to stay beyond this past school year.

Formalizing the temporary arrangements through an SUP amendment, and for a longer duration, provides us the opportunity to better regulate the use of the property.  Such as by including in the amendment specific measures to ameliorate parking and traffic impacts on the surrounding neighborhood.  As with all specific use permits, we (both P&Z and Council) rely heavily on public input from those most affected in trying to get it right.

P&Z held its public hearing on March 8.  Four members of the public came to speak, all in support of the application and none expressing any concerns about parking, traffic or otherwise.  Hence a bit of handwringing at the City Council public hearing on May 21, at which six of eight speakers (one written) focused solely on parking and traffic concerns, as have several written comments received since.

The issue, of course, isn’t that residents are providing their input; that’s exactly what we want and the whole point of having public hearings in the first place.  It’s that by not getting that input back in March, P&Z, city staff and perhaps most of all the school district as applicant, were deprived of the opportunity to address those concerns in the intervening two and a half months.  Compounding the problem is that by the time they were asked to do so, there were less than two weeks of school remaining in which data could be collected and the traffic impact analysis updated.

Would it have made any difference?  Well, even without having received such input, P&Z was clearly aware of and, as stated in its recommendation, sought “to minimize traffic impacts to the neighboring community” by inserting a requirement that the school district continue busing students between the two campuses to reduce the number of cars at drop-off and pick-up.  That certainly suggests they’d have been receptive to hearing more and would have considered adding further conditions as appropriate.  For their part, school district representatives were very engaged on these issues when raised at Council’s public hearing and have subsequently asked to delay consideration by two weeks so they’d have more time to work on them.  Regardless what revisions they may ultimately come up with, the fact that they could have begun doing so back in March demonstrates the importance of the P&Z public hearing as that first opportunity for formal citizen input.

Again, none of the foregoing is intended as commentary on the SUP amendment itself, which is now scheduled for Council’s consideration on June 18.  It’s the process I’m hoping we can improve, and in that constructive spirit I respectfully suggest we’re all best served by recognizing the value of both parts of the planning and zoning two-step.  That process is designed to maximize public input, and your participation at both P&Z and Council directly contributes to better outcomes, more responsive to your concerns.