Shelton Planning & Zoning chair defends restarting in-person public hearings
SHELTON — The Planning and Zoning Commission’s decision to begin holding public hearings during the coronavirus pandemic concerns some residents — and even one of its own commissioners.
P&Z commissioner Mark Widomski, in a Facebook post, says the commission has made a “poor decision” in scheduling public hearings as the pandemic rages on. The state had been essentially shut down since March, although it began a partial reopening Wednesday, the same day that the commission held its first public hearing since March.
"The governor issued an executive order that extended the 65-day deadline set by statute for land use decisions,” stated Widomski, “so there is not a single valid reason to be conducting them in terms … of public safety and health.
“I have also passed my concerns regarding the ability to conduct a public hearing under the current conditions and restrictions using the currently available technology that will allow the public the ability to hear, see and participate in the hearing,” added Widomski.
Commission Chair Virginia Harger disagreed, saying the Planning and Zoning Commission is not only being compliant with the governor’s executive orders but also giving the public the opportunity to view application documents online ahead of a public hearing, directly hear comments and questions from the public during a public hearing and receive comments and questions from the public after a public hearing.
“There is no need to postpone public hearings,” said Harger.
The city has also implemented social distancing and personal safety guidelines by positioning seating in the auditorium at the appropriate distance from other seats, requiring face masks for all entering City Hall, and providing hand sanitizer, she said.
Harger said she has received two letters asking that the commission put public hearings on hold. The next such hearing — on Phase II of the Cedar Village apartments — is set for 10 a.m. May 27.
The commission has updated its public hearing procedures, according to Harger, to accommodate the governor’s executive order and allow city zoning business to move forward. She added that the updates were vetted by the city’s corporation counsel.
Harger said after the governor issued executive orders March 14 and March 21, the city implemented several measures to comply with new regulations for “Commencement and Holding of Public Hearings, Decisions and Appeals.”
Those measures, she said, include the ability for the public to view or listen to each meeting or proceeding in real time by telephone, video or other technology; a recording or transcript of meetings filed on the city’s website within seven days of the meeting; and posting materials related to applications on the city's website.
"The updated guidelines call for public hearings to be kept open after the applicant’s presentation, questions from P&Z commissioners and comments and questions from members of the public who are present,” said Harger.
The updated guidelines also contain another portion of an executive order, according to Harger, allowing the public to submit questions and comments to the Planning and Zoning office until 24 hours before the resumption of the public hearing.
“I also made sure to include in the updated guidelines two protocols — that at the resumption of the public hearing, questions and comments received by the Planning and Zoning office within the time frame for submission will be read into the record; and anyone from the public present at the continuation of the public hearing who further wishes to address the commission on the application will be recognized,” said Harger.
The commission meetings are live streamed on the city’s website as well as recorded, so the public can view the public hearing later if unavailable to watch the live streaming.