The Commissioner — Summer 2011

Commissioner's Voice

Creative and Simple Solutions

By W. Shedrick Coleman

Chatham County-Savannah (Georgia) Metropolitan Planning Commission

What are the duties of the planning board to provide notice to the public for "matter-of-right" petitions? Such petitions are those where the petitioner’s project meets all the requirements of the ordinance without the need for board approval. In many areas, such petitions can be approved at a staff level. Otherwise, they may be handled as consent agenda items. Whatever the methodology, they usually provide no vehicle for public input during the approval process.

Matter-of-right petitions usually create no major problems in their execution, but there are instances where the public has presented challenges to such approvals. An example experienced recently in our community centered on the location of an early-release facility located in an industrial area. The use was approved for the area in prior years and the recent expansion of the use garnered public attention. The result was a challenge of the entire process by which the project had been previously approved by the planning staff. The resulting investigation found the project was a matter-of-right approval and fully met all ordinance criteria. The planning board, however, sought to create a better vehicle to track petitions of this type to allow the public to gain knowledge of petitions approved outside the formal planning board meeting environment.

Because providing notice to the public was not legally required for such petitions beyond adjacent property owners, it was important that the proposed solution follow the intent of the ordinance yet allow the general public knowledge of approvals at all levels. The methodology offered by the planning director proposed the publication of all staff-level approvals as an addition to the regular planning board meeting agenda. Not only would this become a means of public notice, it would serve to provide the planning board with a better understanding of the development activity within the community as a whole.

The end result of this experience was that the planning board became much more sensitive to the public need to understand the various approval methods for petitions and how such approvals were communicated. Sharing information has proven to be a successful strategy to promote trust within the local community in regards to the planning approval process. The approval process did not change, but the public is now fully informed of the actions of the planning board and staff, and there is another level of transparency in the overall planning process. A win for all.