A Winning Formula for Permitting
- Arrange for a transcript of the meeting. Most communities arrange for their meetings to be recorded in one form or another. If the community does not record the actual proceedings, you may want to consider having a court reporter present. While a court reporter tends to make people much more cautious while discussing your project, I believe having an actual transcript of the discussion outweighs the negatives. Reading a transcript in your office after a hearing will frequently make you aware of statements expressed during the hearing, which didn’t register at the time.
There can also be other benefits from having a transcript of the hearing. Some years ago, we were involved in a particularly difficult request to permit additional reserves. We knew that the local public water agency would take a lead position on the matter and forward it on to the decision makers; in this case, elected officials. When the water agency’s board of directors met, their discussion clearly indicated that their opposition to our request was for a variety of political reasons, none of which were related to our request. The letter the water agency sent to elected officials simply stated that it opposed the request, but did not go into detail as to why it opposed the proposal. At the hearing before the elected decision makers, I read some of the statements of the water agency’s board members from the transcript of the hearing. The elected decision makers, upon hearing of the opposition as revealed by the transcripts, became upset at the water agency and approved the project.
The public hearing phase
On the surface, one would think that if an applicant has followed all the steps suggested during the three previous phases, he would arrive at the appointed time for the public hearing beaming with confidence that the request would be approved. Of course, this is not usually the case, as anyone who has ever been involved in a controversial land-use entitlement request knows. Throughout the remainder of the process, keep the following list of dos and don’ts in mind.
- Never underestimate your opponent. You must always assume that your opponents will have expert witnesses that are equal to those you plan to employ. An applicant who assumes that a neighborhood opposition group is “just a group of housewives” may be very shocked to find that the group includes women who are attorneys, MBAs, etc., who have taken time out from their careers to raise a family. When a controversial project is proposed in their neighborhood, these individuals can donate countless hours of their professional expertise to fight your proposal.
- Time your presentation. As you prepare your presentation, make sure that it fits within the time limit you have been given. Unfortunately, applicants sometimes may be in the middle of their presentations with the most important points yet to be made when the Chair interrupts and tells the presenter they only have three minutes to sum up. That should never happen. Whatever time limit you are given, make sure your presentation fits within it.
- Be prepared. My introduction to land-use entitlements was during the 1960s, shortly after I went to work in the industry. The president of the company called several of us together right after lunch one day. He told us that we had a hearing that night before the local city planning commission. He asked us to assemble in his office at 4 p.m., when we would decide what we were going to say that evening and who would make the presentation. In most parts of these country, those days are now gone. Today, most presentations to obtain land-use entitlement consist of several consultants and experts along with a visual presentation that, depending on the circumstances, can be very involved.
Whatever form or type of presentation that is selected, I strongly recommend that a practice session be held. Various people from the company can serve as surrogate decision makers. Their role should be to get the person making the presentation completely flustered. This will serve as a tremendous warm-up for the real hearing when the audience may well be filled with more than 100 people, all opposed to the request.
Having people from the company ask questions will test the overall knowledge of the people making the presentation. Every public hearing will usually generate one or more questions that are “off the wall” or “from out of left field.” The person making the presentation needs practice on how to handle these types of questions, so they should be included in the practice session. I remember one practice session when the presenter responded to one of these “off the wall” questions with the statement, “It was a dumb question.” That is precisely why the practice session was being held. Responding to a decision maker’s question that way almost certainly would ensure that your request would be voted down.
- Dress for success. As previously suggested, it is a good idea to attend several meetings of the decision makers before your item is presented. One of the things that should have been observed is what constitutes appropriate attire. You don’t want to overdress, and you don’t want to under dress. Ideally, you will choose clothes that will make you fit into the community. In a rural area, a Brooks Brothers suit probably will be out of place, whereas western attire probably will be considered out of place in a large, eastern metropolitan city.
I have long been of the opinion that the color of the clothes an applicant wears also is important. While this may sound silly on the surface, consider this: few people would show up at a hearing wearing an all-black suit, a black shirt, and a white tie. That type of clothing immediately makes people think of someone associated with the Mafia. Some years ago, I read about an experiment where identical twins were sent into multiple branches of a large bank seeking a loan. The only variable in the experiment, from branch to branch, was the color of clothing worn by the loan seekers. At the conclusion of the experiment, the results were startling. By a large margin, the loan applicants wearing blue were successful much more often than those wearing any other color of clothing. For some reason, people wearing blue appear to be more trustworthy. I always wear blue at public hearings. I don’t know if it has helped or not, but I know it hasn’t hurt. One final thought about colors. Think of presidential debates. What color suits do the candidates wear?