|Land use under discussion at a meeting of the Lincolnia Task Force.|
Those are among the recommendations of the Community Council on Land Use Engagement, a citizens’ group created by Board of Supervisors Chair Sharon Bulova in January to consider how the county can improve its public outreach procedures.
The chair of the council, former Planning Commissioner Walter Alcorn, will present the final report to the BoS on June 20. The report is virtually completed, but may be subject to some editorial changes.
Members of the council include citizen association representatives, land use committee members, developer representatives, residents active in land use issues, and county staff. Members from Mason District include Jeffrey Longo (Sleepy Hollow Manor Citizens Association) and Deborah Fraser (a resident of Stonegate at Landmark).
“County officials – the board, Planning Commission, and staff – must actively seek and be responsive to resident input,” the report states. “Developers must also respect the role of residents in the process.” And while the county and developers should reach out to the affected community in a timely manner, civic associations and HOAs “must be vigilant in relaying important information to their members.”
The council notes that the existing citizen engagement process works well in places with active civic associations, HOAs, and/or land use committees, but has been less effective in places without a strong civic infrastructure or in multifamily communities without a single point of contact.
The council calls for the current legal requirements for notification to be strengthened, noting that the law requiring the notification of 25 adjacent landowners before a hearing on a land use matter is “insufficient for a properly engaged citizenry.”
“The council also recognizes that some land use changes can trigger a substantial amount of controversy in the community for a variety of reasons,” the report states. “Some of the controversy may be unavoidable, but some could be minimized through greater county staff and applicant intervention, education, and consensus-building early in the process.”
Regarding notification to the community, the council believes traditional forms of communication – such as direct mail, newspaper ads and articles, newsletters, and legal postings (the yellow signs) – should be more clearly written and more targeted in placement and distribution.
“Other forms of communication, including email, the website, Channel 16, and third-party services like Nextdoor, provide great opportunity to continue and broaden participation,” the report states.
Noting that the most involved citizens tend to be older and more educated about the development process, the report urges the county to reach out to a wider, more diverse group of citizens, including new residents, small-business owners, parents of young children, tenants, people who don’t speak English at home, and people who live in areas without an active citizen association.
Here are some of the group’s key recommendations:
· In all forms of communication, county staff should use use plain language, be accurate, and be succinct.
· The county and developers should encourage a culture to communicate with a broad group of citizens even when not required.
· Communication to the public should begin earlier in the process. For example, notices about rezoning and special exceptions could be posted online between filing and acceptance.
· Communications should go beyond major applications or changes to ordinances to include changes with very localized impact and by-right projects.
· Multiple channels of communication should be used throughout the process, including media serving non-English-speaking populations.
· Even when there is no requirement for public input in the decision process, staff should encourage property developers to provide a courtesy notification.
· The county should identify better ways for citizens to know what development has already been approved for every privately owned property in the county.
· A geographically targeted system should be created allowing residents to sign up to receive land use information specific to their community.
· Applicants should be required to show they have notified neighbors and provide that information to the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors at public hearings.
· The county should create guidance for applicants on ways to communicate early in the process with citizens, post information in public places like coffee shops, and seek ways to deliver information through non-county channels.
· Technology solutions should be explored for engaging the public, such as webinars.
· The county should make it easier to find information on the county website and submit comments online.
· The county should develop a program to capture feedback from residents who attend meetings and hearings and explain how that input was addressed in the final decision.
· HOAs and citizen associations should be encouraged to designate a representative to check relevant land use information periodically.
· Supervisors and the Planning Commission should consider deferring a final vote when they receive extensive testimony at public hearings.
· The county should establish an ongoing Land Use 101 Academy. It should be offered in the neighborhoods, rather than the Government Center, and should be provided in multiple languages. An online, interactive version should also be made available.
· The county should consider an online certificate program recognizing citizens who “graduate” from an online land use educational program.
· A separate page on the county website should be established with links to basic information about land use, such as definitions, to help people better understand applications and staff reports.