Whether your project involves wind, solar or communications, when it falls under local jurisdiction the fundamentals for success are the same. Best practices for zoning can be grouped into three categories: Research, Relationships and Record. In this third article of a three part series we take a look at establishing a solid record.
Create a record that can withstand legal challenge. This starts with selecting the strongest feasible location. If possible, steer clear of locations that you know from your research and your relationships are high risk in light of ordinance requirements or potential opposition. Will most people perceive your proposed location as a good fit with the character of the surrounding area?
Make your zoning filing the most thorough they have seen. Show how you meet all ordinance requirements. In addition to completing the application forms provided by the jurisdiction, a statement of ordinance compliance reproducing the relevant section of the ordinance followed by your response explaining how your project meets the requirement is often appropriate. The maps and drawings submitted should depict all necessary measurements and design requirements. Don’t hesitate to add additional maps, photos, simulations or other visual aids that will familiarize the planning staff and decision makers with your project and its location.
Ensure proper public notice for hearings is given and keep relevant documentation. You should know how the meeting will be conducted and what rules or time limits for speakers will be enforced. Use your relationships to anticipate what issues are likely to come to the fore, and prepare handouts or exhibits as appropriate to address them. Consider whether additional testimony from a company representative or expert may be necessary.
Be familiar with the quality of minutes generated by the jurisdiction. Do they record meetings and retain the recording? When difficulty is anticipated and the quality of meeting documentation is in doubt, consider retaining a court reporter to document the proceedings. When making your presentation be sure to reference any handouts or exhibits to ensure they are made a part of the record. If there are legal restrictions on issues that can be discussed or a conflict of interest, try to have the jurisdiction’s attorney address it in advance to avoid having to make a challenge in the public meeting setting.
When making your presentation keep in mind that your primary goal is to ensure the board is comfortable approving your project. Because the setting is public and sometimes very political, they will be sensitive to how your proposal is presented and how you respond to challenges. Address what is important to them and emphasize the benefits to the community. Respect all opponents and politely answer their questions to the best of your ability. If you can, be prepared to offer up minor changes or conditions that are responsive to their concerns. This will allow the board to feel they have addressed the matter, and the landowner to go home with something for their effort. If there are a series of strong challenges, don’t fall into a pattern of only responding to negatives. Every decision requires a balancing of interests. Help the decision makers keep perspective and refocus on the benefits. They need to feel that they are doing the right thing for the community and that their decision will hold up under scrutiny. It may be helpful when planning your meeting strategy to visualize in advance what will be written about the meeting in the local paper.
If the board appears ready to make a negative decision, consider a request to table the item until the next meeting so that you can regroup and provide supplemental information. If the decision is in your favor, make sure it is clearly stated and conforms to the requirements of the ordinance. Follow-up by obtaining the meeting minutes and ensuring that corrections are made if they don’t accurately reflect the decision. Make sure all conditions of approval are met. Start construction as soon as possible once all permits are secured in order to establish a vested right to complete the project.
Ralph Wyngarden (email@example.com) is Zoning Director at Faulk & Foster. He has served wind and solar developers and wireless telecommunications providers in markets across the country for the past nine years and is responsible for the development and maintenance of best practices for zoning and permitting for Faulk & Foster’s telecommunications and energy departments.