Planning Board Debates Public-Comment Policies
BY FLORENCE GILKESON
Policy pertaining to public hearings and public-comment periods generated lively debate at the Thursday night meeting of the Moore County Planning Board.
At the end of the meeting, during the public-comment period, the board heard from five speakers - including three whose comments were halted during a hearing at a December meeting.
"It is important to remember that we have government of the people, by the people and for the people," said Ruth Stolting, who was not allowed to complete her prepared comments at the Dec. 10 hearing because of a three-minute speaking limit. She was speaking in opposition to the proposed Pine Forest development
Her husband, Bob, told the board that their home is about half a mile from the proposed Pine Forest development. He said the policy imposed at that meeting gave the impression that it was a deliberate effort to restrict input from neighboring property owners.
"The Planning Board should be willing and anxious to listen to constituents to reach informed decisions," Bob Stolting said.
Stolting reminded the board that when his comments reached the three-minute limit, three other people who had signed up to speak offered to waive their speaking time and give it to him. One of those volunteers was Harry Huberth, a former chairman of the Planning Board and also a speaker at the January meeting.
However, Stolting did not use but five of the nine minutes yielded by the other speakers, but later in the meeting, when he offered to give his remaining four minutes to Joe McDonald, the chairwoman denied his request.
"The worst possible conditions existed, and we were mortified," Stolting said. "I hope it never happens again."
The Stoltings and McDonald are officers of the environmental group known as Save Our Sandhills (SOS).
McDonald said that the board's decisions "will affect the landscape of this county forever." He said the public should be given an opportunity to speak and that the resulting response would actually help board members to do their job.
"Future generations will not be able to come back and undo the work and make it go away," McDonald warned.
Huberth repeated the thoughts he expressed in the public-comment period at the end of the December meeting. By curtailing comment from the public, the board created a problem that previously did not exist, Huberth said.
He also warned that by clamping down too stringently and not allowing the public to vent, there may be an explosion.
"The right to do something does not mean that it is right to do it," Huberth said.
Ralph Redmond suggested that the planning staff post some of the information about planning and zoning issues on the Internet to make it available to the interested public.
Redmond also spoke against adoption of stringent restrictions when it comes to public comment.
"These people are your constituents," Redmond said. "Rules are the worst things you can have in this world."
The five speakers addressed the board during the public-comment period at the end of the meeting, as did Huberth at the December meeting.
'Should Be Heard'
Earlier in the meeting, board members discussed changing the policy for both public-comment periods and legislative public hearings.
The board agreed to move the public comment period from the end of the meeting to the beginning of the agenda at future meetings. This change will enable people to speak and leave the meeting early, especially when meetings are lengthy, and will also enable the board to address pertinent issues raised by the public.
But on policy, the board voted to delay a decision until the February meeting, which will be in the form of a training session.
The differences between the two forums were defined and discussed during the meeting.
A public hearing is a legally required procedure called to allow interested parties to address a local government board on issues related to a particular subject. In the case of the Planning Board, the subject is usually related to a zoning change.
State law now requires all government bodies, both elected panels and appointive panels, to hold a public-comment period at each meeting. Speakers can address a variety of issues.
Planning Director Joey Raczkowski and County Attorney Misty Leland had been asked to research the issue and make recommendations.
For study purposes, they presented copies of the public-comment policy in place for Board of Commissioners meetings. That policy limits the public-comment period to 30 minutes at the beginning of each meeting. It requires speakers to sign up before the meeting begins and to limit their comments to three minutes per person. Speakers are allowed to yield their speaking time to another speaker if they wish to do so.
The commissioners' policy requires speakers to address the board as a whole, not an individual member, and to refrain from making comments that would be harmful, discriminatory or embarrassing to anyone.
Board Vice Chairwoman Kim VonCanon questioned the need for all the restrictions in the commissioners' policy.
"We are a board that should be listening to the people of the county, whether it's a hearing or something else," she said. "We should answer questions and follow up. We need to make it easier for people to understand the issues."
VonCanon was unable to attend the December meeting but said she received numerous calls from people who were upset about the treatment of speakers at that meeting.
"If people walk out of here wondering 'Why did we even bother to come,' people can get really ugly, really frustrated and heated up," she said. "I was disturbed, embarrassed and disappointed when I read about it in the newspaper and then I read the minutes of that meeting."
Some Limits Needed
Dave Kinney pointed out that the commissioners' policy seems to satisfy the public with the three-minute speaking limit.
VonCanon said she does not like the three-minute limit but acknowledged that there are times when people repeat themselves and veer away from the subject. She suggested that the policy should have flexibility with some issues left to the discretion of the board.
"If someone comes to a meeting with something to say, they should be heard," VonCanon said.
Rodney Pickler suggested that board members attend more commissioners' meetings to see how their policy works.
"The commissioners don't seem to have a problem, but they don't cut people off, as long as they stick to the subject and don't repeat themselves," Pickler said.
Bernard Capstick agreed that flexibility is needed. He noted that the decision on limits could be based on information on the sign-up sheet, which gives an idea of the number of people wishing to speak.
Richard Lea said he has never attended a meeting at which some limit was not placed on the length of time a person may speak. He told an anecdote about an English class in which each student was assigned to write a paper on a subject. When the paper was completed, students were then asked to rewrite the paper but to confine their words to 100.
Lea said that he and other students quickly learned that they could indeed reduce their thoughts to 100 words and cover the subject.
Without some limits, Lea said, the board might be in session until midnight if the public is allowed to speak endlessly.
Board Chairwoman Martha Blake said the policy, once adopted, should be attached to the agenda that is available to everyone attending meetings and that the policy be written in plain English, clear enough for everyone to understand.
The Pine Forest rezoning issue will be the subject of a public hearing scheduled for the county commissioners' Jan. 19 meeting. The Planning Board recommended approval of the developer's request, but the final decision lies with the county commissioners.
The Planning Board's December meeting was the second occasion for discussion of the huge subdivision proposed by MHK Ventures Inc. for an 1,800-acre tract on N.C. 211 adjacent to the Dormie Club, another MHK development on N.C. 73. The developer is proposing hundreds of residential units with a resort hotel, a gated residential community, an open residential community, a small retail center, two golf courses and other amenities.
Before the Planning Board received the application, the developer conducted two community meetings at West Pine School, where the Pine Forest plan was presented and members of the community were given an opportunity to comment and ask questions.
The Planning Board opened the public hearing at a November meeting but continued the matter until December to provide more time for research and study.
Contact Florence Gilkeson at (910) 693-2479 or by e-mail at flo firstname.lastname@example.org.
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