As local governments throughout Florida move forward with land use and development decisions via virtual meetings amid the coronavirus pandemic, some residents and advocacy organizations worried about public engagement are calling for a temporary pause to proceedings.
Gov. DeSantis last month suspended the requirement for a physical quorum at meetings and allowed local governments to use telephone and video conferencing. His order is in effect until May 8 if it isn’t extended.
St. Johns County relaxed its requirements even further for land use hearings. Emergency Proclamation 2020-7 waives the requirement for mailed notices, published notices (for example, in a newspaper), as well as the posting of signs for issues related to land use, zoning, and development for the duration of the local state of emergency.
Instead, the county now requires notice of hearings in a “reasonable manner as determined by the County Administrator.”
Jeb Smith, chair of the St. Johns County Board of Commissioners, emailed an explanation to one of his constituents. He said the board has paused certain decisions while moving forward with others.
“We have many applications that have begun the process that are now in ‘limbo’ or uncertainty as a result of the COVID19 phenomena. They are in compliance. The board chose not to hear the items because of concern of not having sufficient, adequate, equitable public input.”
He said the board requested the county attorney to resolve the concern, and the proclamation was a response to that request.
“Likewise, we did not want to penalize the applicants by mandating them to start again or advertise again because of our decision to postpone their scheduled agenda hearings,” he continued. “There is no intention by this board to sneak anything by the public or grant free license to developers to secure their desires. The intention of the board was and is quite contrary. It is our intention to provide to the public the opportunity and ample opportunity to present their concerns.”
In response to Emergency Proclamation 2020-7, 1000 Friends of Florida, a nonprofit that advocates for sustainable growth and environmental stewardship, sent a letter to the Board of County Commissioners asking land use decisions to be put on hold for the time being.
“People are used to three ways of receiving notice: through the mail, through the newspaper and through signage on the property. So if it's going to be conducted in some other way that residents are not accustomed to, that should be explicitly set forth in this proclamation. But it’s not,” said Jane West, policy and planning director for 1000 Friends of Florida.
West said traditional forms of public notice would not violate social distancing guidelines.
“You go post a sign on a property, you're not anywhere near anyone. Mail is still being sent. You can call the newspaper and email in your notice,” she said. “None of this requires interacting with another human being in person. So there's a real disconnect there.”
St. Johns County spokesman Michael Ryan said, in general, the county is providing more forms of notification regarding county business during the pandemic.
“We are still maintaining a public notification process that adheres with local ordinances as well as state of Florida law,” he said. “But in addition to that, we've increased our notifications through some untraditional means, such as social media, to ensure the public is aware that St. Johns County is still conducting business.”
In fact, participation in public county meetings has gone up, according to Ryan, which he attributes to the county’s allowing public comments via telephone. Previously commenters were required to attend meetings in person.
But West believes if things continue as they have, land use and zoning applications will be pushed through without meaningful public debate.
“I believe we should have maximum public participation, and so those hearings should be postponed until after the emergency orders are lifted,” she said.
These concerns aren’t limited to St. Johns County.
After Gov. DeSantis decided to allow virtual government meetings, Jacksonville City Councilman Danny Becton postponed the next meeting of the Land Use and Zoning (LUZ) Committee, which he chairs.
“Given that land use and zoning has quasi-judicial matters, I certainly was concerned and wanted processes put in place that allowed the public to have access and also to have knowledge before going into those [meetings] of how to participate,” the District 11 representative said.
Two weeks later, on Tuesday, April 21, when LUZ held its first virtual meeting, Becton said he saw engagement fall off completely.
“I had no public participation on Tuesday night and I was disappointed in that. But, I will say this: We did pick bills that did not have a lot of controversy to them,” he said.
According to Becton, no new applications are going through the committee process. Pre-existing applications are allowed to proceed, except for what he deems “controversial” proposals, which are being postponed until the state of emergency is lifted.
“I’ve got a couple of very delicate bills that are going to have a lot of public participation that I'm expecting, and I'm pushing those as much as I can so we don't do them virtually,” Becton said.
One is a request to demolish part of the Downtown Baptist Church facilities.
“That’s certainly going to be a hot topic,” Becton said. “I’m expecting a lot of public interest and I may even end up having to have a special meeting all by itself outside of LUZ just to take up that topic.”
But in an email to Councilman Becton and others, Abby Howard Murphy, a Jacksonville Citizen Planning Advisory Committee (CPAC) volunteer, said she disagrees with the assertion that less controversial items are a non-issue for scheduling. The city of Jacksonville is divided into six planning districts, each with its own CPAC. The main purpose of CPACs is to maintain an open dialogue between residents and the city government.
“All issues should be treated equally,” Murphy wrote. “They may only seem uncontroversial because the public is unaware of the request or they haven’t had press, especially since the city only notices immediate neighbors within several hundred feet and NOT entire communities impacted.”
Becton said public notices about upcoming LUZ hearings are being communicated the same way as always: on COJ.net. And he believes the process may be even more transparent than it has been in the past.
“[The hearings are] on channel 99, I’m being told, and it is being streamed, just like it always has,” he said.
While his committee isn’t meeting physically, Becton says there are two ways for the public to engage: send an email or call in via Zoom or telephone. Becton said he thinks it’s now easier for residents to engage with the process.
“You can sit at home and participate in the meetings right now versus having to drive down to City Hall,” he said.
But the CPAC volunteer doesn’t think the city has done enough.
“Until you can come up with a workaround to also engage and promote public proactively remotely in such emergencies, suggest a moratorium on LUZ changes until CPAC can be engaged. Developers and owners may just need to comply with existing laws and requirements in [the] meantime or wait until things resume as normal,” Murphy wrote.
But, much like the St. Johns County Board of Commissioners chair, Becton believes developers shouldn’t be penalized due to the current situation.
“Time is money, and for a lot of these applications it's costing somebody something. And if there is no reason to hold something up, just because we're not meeting in person, I don't believe that’s the right thing,” Becton said.
But West, the sustainable growth advocate, is calling for a full halt to the process throughout the state and temporarily waiving fees that developers would have to pay.
“These projects, many of them are potentially shovel ready. They've dotted the I's, crossed the T's, they’re ready to go. I get that,” she said. “But every other sector of our economy is on a pause mode as well. We shouldn't be carving out exceptions here, when the consequences are permanent in nature.”
Ryan said the letter from 1000 Friends has been distributed to and is being reviewed by the Board of County Commissioners as well as the county’s administrative and legal teams.