Wayne Arnold

September 11, 2009

Who Cares What the Neighbors Think?

 You Should!
By D. Wayne Arnold, AICP -Director of Planning
 Q. Grady Minor & Associates


Those of us who are involved in the process of obtaining development entitlements such as amending local government comprehensive plans and rezoning property know that the Florida Statutes mandate public notification before our elected officials meet to take action on these types of land use matters.   The State establishes minimum standards which mandate publishing legal advertisements in local newspapers of general circulation and in some cases providing a description of the proposed action in letter form to surrounding property owners prior to holding a public hearing(s) on these local land use matters.  Local governments can take the public notice requirements further and also require public notice signage to be installed on a property prior to a public hearing.   These examples further the concept of “government in the sunshine” and insures that citizens are provided an opportunity to provide their comment concerning issues such as a land use change before their elected officials take action.


Public input received is non-binding on the local officials; however, it is difficult for an elected or appointed official to discount public input, especially when it comes from neighbors who clearly have a stake in the outcome of the local land use decision, and is often emotional.  Most local governments offer the public more than one opportunity to express their opinion on land use matters.   Local planning agencies and zoning boards provide opportunities for the public to share their opinions and so do our City Councils and County Commissions.  I have attended hundreds of public meetings in my twenty year planning career in Florida and cannot recall a single meeting in which someone from the public was in attendance to share their opinion on an agenda item.


I am certain that everyone in this industry has experienced at least one public meeting which has the meeting room packed with project detractors-sometimes organized with color coordinated, slogan laden shirts.  Whether a group is formally organized or not, a crowded room of unhappy neighbors does not bode well for a developer needing a majority, or sometimes super-majority favorable vote. 


Most astute developers and their consultants realized some time ago that as Florida grows, your chances of having neighbors in close proximity to your project is increased and more than likely it will be closely scrutinized by them.  In response, those developers and their consultants reached out to their immediate neighbors or neighborhood associations and offered to meet with them in advance of public hearings.  This provided the developer the opportunity to share with the neighborhood their plans, and obtain feedback from the community regarding issues that may be of concern, and an opportunity to address some issues well in advance of the public hearing.   Sometimes people don’t want any change and are opposed to any development proposal.  Often though, it is the fear of the unknown and unfounded rumors that are the most troublesome issues for the community.  By taking the time to meet with the neighbors, a developer can often address expressed concerns well in advance of a public hearing.  Sometimes all it takes is a minor adjustment to a proposed use, landscape buffer or development standard to turn a naysayer into a supporter.  


Some local governments have recognized that a more informed public results in a more efficient public hearing process.   It is far from the norm, but several communities have established local requirements for holding neighborhood meetings for a project before the first public hearing.  Collier County for instance instituted a neighborhood informational meeting (NIM) for comprehensive plan amendments, rezonings and conditional use applications.   This community requires that the NIM is advertised in the local newspaper, notice of the meeting is mailed to property owners in the vicinity of the project, and the meeting is recorded to document the information provided to the attendees.  Yes, there are additional costs associated with holding an informational meeting and that is an issue in the current economic environment.  However, spending a year or more to reach a public hearing only to find out that there is opposition to the project at this late stage can result in project a continuance or denial also resulting in additional project expenses.  The latter scenario may also result in one of the most costly project issues which can be negative publicity.


This more formal meeting approach has merit and provides an opportunity for staff, the public and developer to discuss the proposed project, and obtain important feedback, which will provide the developer guidance on how best to address any issues.   The most successful developers and consultants embrace the public process and welcome the opportunity to hear community concerns and to have the opportunity to address them in advance of the public hearing as beneficial to the project.    As a consultant and lobbyist, I also know that appointed and elected officials appreciate that a developer and the public will not always agree on every issue.  To the extent the areas of disagreement can be minimized, the appointed and elected officials can focus their attention on those areas where there may not be concurrence.   But having met with the neighbors in advance, the developer will not be surprised with major issues at the latest and most important stages of the public hearing process, and importantly, the developer will now at least understand the perspective of the neighbors and be in a stronger position to effectively address the unresolved concerns at the public hearing.    Meeting with the neighbors during the review stages for land use matters may not result in making them advocates for a project, but it will likely put the developer in a much better position to address any unresolved issues and to ultimately gain a favorable recommendation for the project.






Author Bio

D. Wayne Arnold, AICP is a Principal and Director of Planning with Q. Grady Minor & Associates, which has offices throughout S.W. Florida.