Many of us are familiar with the scenario of presenting a development application before a public body, such as a city council, that appears to be going well until the wheels come off for some unexpected reason. This happens most frequently when one or more residents who have “only just heard” about the project being considered show up to voice objections, raise questions and make allegations, some of which are untrue. What’s a project proponent to do? Well, if you are well-prepared and fortunate to have a strong recommendation of support from staff, maybe nothing. But, then again, when you are dealing with a public body in a public process, even that may not be enough.
If there is one thing politicians strive to avoid it is controversy and they will avoid it whenever possible. In any case, what matters most is being more prepared than anyone else. If you are perceived as the expert in the room, as evidenced by strong preparation, you may get a measure of deference that helps you successfully complete the process. But if there is any doubt, especially in a chamber full of irate residents, you and your client are likely the least important people in the room.
Part of being prepared requires understanding the development interest for which one is advocating and why the site in question is necessary for future operations. Local zoning regulations bear directly on this question, so you need to be confident about how those regulations help or potentially hurt your cause. It is imperative to evaluate the “risk factors” associated with an application on the front end to avoid, if possible, being surprised deeper into the process, such as at a pivotal public hearing. This means laying out the proposed project in the context of the applicable regulations, such as land use controls, design standards, environmental restrictions, etc., to ensure that any perceived risk exposure has a ready response. One must also understand the nature of the request: Does your application raise a legislative policy question, such as a zoning change, or something that is quasi-judicial, such as a permit?
The former circumstance vests the public body with broad policy discretion provided that it acts fairly and reasonably to apply established standards designed to protect the public. In the latter circumstance, such as a conditional use permit, the rules are tighter and the public body can be held more strictly accountable both to its regulations and the state of the record supporting the application. Your “risk factor” analysis helps you anticipate where you have the greatest exposure so that your record has been properly created to address all applicable standards as well as likely questions. Are you better off doing the traffic study now or waiting to see whether it will be a source of concern down the road? Admittedly, judgments need to be made depending on the facts as you know them.
In the modern age of the internet, it is possible to research all manner of things that may actually be helpful in preparing a development application and the supportive record. However, that same tool is available to everyone else, too, and thus you are always exposed to the prospect of a citizen who has conducted “research” and now purports to understand your project and your business and has an opinion about one or both. Understanding whether your industry is confronting public adversity elsewhere is a key factor in your preparation. If so, what is being used successfully to respond to that adversity? If you or your client has made mistakes, what has been done to remedy them, with assurance that they won’t happen again? For companies that are heavily regulated, such as in the mining sector, this is a constant source of concern. Any negative headline, whether true or not, may well be used to counter your project. Remember, your personal credibility, along with that of your client is being tested in the process; being prepared means knowing where the shots will come from.
Putting a narrative together tied to the applicable regulatory standards, even as a cheat sheet, is an important tool for helping one respond to questions that were not previously the subject of discussion. Not being able to respond confidently in the heat of the hearing to predictable or even random questions may lead directly to a motion to table the pending application, allowing the public body to avoid the potential political conflict that is brewing. Being able to confidently march the public body through the application requirements and the supporting record often leads to the logical conclusion that your application can and should be approved in spite of the opposition.
If your best effort is not working, you may need to make a decision about whether to request that your application be tabled to address specific questions. If you are dealing with a legislative policy question, this approach may be advisable given the breadth of discretion vested in the public body. If however, their discretion is more limited and you have a strong record, you may need to call their bluff and force the members of the body to express their opinions. Once you understand what you are up against, then you can make an informed decision about how to proceed. You might be successful; but then again, you might not. And if not, that’s why saloons exist.