A new state law requiring city council members to act as jurors in “quasi-judicial” hearings to approve site plans is raising some questions about the fairness of the new process.
The law, which took effect at the beginning of this year, states that any site plan requiring approval by the city council must be processed through a quasi-judicial hearing.
Only expert witnesses can be sworn in and allowed to speak. That means constituents cannot make their cases for or against a proposed development to council members, unless it qualifies as “expert testimony.”
Jurors must remain impartial to the subject at hand, something City Attorney Tom McCormick views as problematic.
“People are used to being able to talk to their elected officials about these site plans, so it’s hard for them to accept they can’t do that anymore,” he said
The conversation among interested groups can be part of the site plan approval process only if the project is sent for review by the Raleigh Planning Commission.
If the site plan is instead sent to the city council for any number of reasons – if an appeal was made or a Special Use permit is required – this conversation ceases to exist.
Ken Bowers, deputy director for the city planning department, said the new process aims to make the process fair and ensure “objective decisions to a subjective matter.”
But Councilman Bonner Gaylor is concerned about missing important information.
“My job is to talk to constituents about how they want their neighborhood to develop, so it’s challenging when we aren’t allowed to hear testimony outside of the city council meeting concerning how a proposed site plan might effect them,” said the city councilor. “Nor is it always clear when a site plan may come to pass.”
Raleigh’s first high profile quasi-judicial hearing reviewed the site plan for a multi-use building on the corner of Clark Street and Oberlin Road in the Cameron Village Shopping Center. Only expert witnesses were allowed to speak, but that did not stop residents from getting their voices heard.
“It was a public hearing so anyone was allowed in the audience, but I was surprised to see them holding signs to express their position [on the site plan],” Gaylord said. “It was a clever approach.”
In an effort to ease the pressure put on city councilors and residents, Mayor Charles Meeker last week requested a separate body to be appointed to act as jurors in these cases.
The group would relieve concerns that site plans are being approved or denied based on unintended but inevitable constituent influence or political bias. The panel would also gain expertise in handling these specific cases.
“What I have in mind is to implement an impartial group to review the cases, consisting of a planner, someone with legal training and citizens,” he said.
It is not clear when Meeker’s proposal will be discussed.