Broader Notification Rules for Site Plans on the Table

Raleigh residents could soon get more notice about changes affecting their neighborhoods — at least for some cases.

Raleigh city staff will be changing notification procedures regarding quasi-judicial hearings to make sure area residents have adequate time to prepare for the hearings. A quasi-judicial hearing occurs for special use permits. Applicants go before the city council, which acts as an impartial judge. Councilors can only use factual evidence presented during the hearing to make a final decision on the issue.

The changes come after group of residents said they were not given proper notification of a proposed telecommunications tower going up in their neighborhood.  The residents said they were only given 48 hours to review and prepare testimony opposing the tower before the hearing.

Ultimately, councilors approved the cell tower, which will be located off of Rosewell Road east of Falls of Neuse Road and south of Durant Road.

State law requires the Raleigh City Council to hold quasi-judicial hearings on site plans because of the subjective standards the city uses to approve the proposals. The hearings are similar to court proceedings where witnesses must be sworn in by the clerk and councilors make decisions based on evidence presented.

Members of the council’s Law and Public Safety Committee discussed the issue Tuesday, and agreed that 48 hours is not enough notice to prepare for such hearings.

The city’s ordinances for how staff handles notifications is not very detailed, said Greg Hallam, of the city’s Planning Department.

For matters requiring an evidentiary hearing or public hearing, city staff sends letters to property owners adjacent or across the street or within 100 feet of a subject property. Letters are sent 10 days prior for evidentiary hearings. For regular site plan changes, letters are usually sent between seven and 14 days in advance.

In addition, a 24-inch sign is posted at the site, with a phone number and the case number. The city also places a newspaper ad for public hearings and site plans at least seven days prior but not more than 25.

When the Unified Development Ordinance, a complete rewrite of the city’s zoning code that’s been in the works for a couple years, is approved it will make notifications consistent for all types of hearings.

Hallam said after watching 20 years of zoning cases, the posted sign has the most response. City Clerk Gail Smith agreed.

“We do get calls; people want to buy the house,” Smith said.

But it’s not just a notification issue, said Councilor Mary-Ann Baldwin.

The difficulty with quasi-judicial hearings is the difference in process, she said. With zoning changes, neighbors can show up, voice an opinion and possibly see their comments reflected in the final decision or outcome.

A quasi-judicial hearing is more like a trial, with cross-examinations and evidence submitted.

Quasi-judicial hearing rules are dictated by a law passed in 2009 (Session Law 2009-421), which defines the way cities handle site plans. The quasi-judicial definition in the statute dictates how the hearings should work and what evidence to consider.

Councilor Thomas Crowder called it an “education issue.”

“[They must] have time to understand what rules are, what process they have to follow as well as evidence submitted and opportunity to hire attorney or find expert witnesses,” Crowder said. “This is a trial. [Even lawyers] want more than two weeks to prepare for a trial.”

Councilors and staff cannot advise residents on what to do or how to go through the process.

“The city really couldn’t give advice about what steps to take,” said Deputy City Attorney Dottie Leapley.

She said the city could provide an explanation of what the hearing is and the evidence rules that apply.

“[We] can’t give advice about how to win its case before the judge,” she said.

Councilor Mary-Ann Baldwin suggested the city begin notifying residents 30 days in advance of hearings if they are quasi-judicial. City staff should also include a sheet of paper with each letter explaining more about quasi-judicial hearings, the process and what residents have a right to do. The same information should be posted on the city’s website, committee members said.

They also agreed that the sign posted on the property should be larger and contain a QR code pointing to the information online.  In addition, instead of just notifying neighbors across the street and adjacent, the local Citizens Advisory Council and Homeowner’s Association or Neighborhood Association should also be notified.

Members also agreed to create a video of a mock evidentiary hearing to post online and keep at City Hall for residents interested in the process.

Smith said most of the new notification work will fall to applicants, who must provide addressed and stamped envelopes to the city for such the notification mailings.

 

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