Posted by: Patricia Salkin | July 24, 2018

Three Recent Decisions Involving Procedural Due Process and the “Meaningful Hearing” Requirement from AL, MO and GA

This post was authored by Amy Lavine, Esq.

In order to provide a meaningful opportunity to be heard, zoning procedures may require a hearing to be held before the local decision-making body, rather than by a planning commission or another local land use agency. Boards and agencies may be authorized to conduct the hearing in some cases even if they’re not the ultimate decision maker, but when this is the case, they still have to ensure that interested parties have a meaningful opportunity to express their opinions. What exactly constitutes a meaningful hearing can be difficult to pin down, but three recent cases from Alabama, Missouri, and Georgia help provide some guidance.

In Birmingham Planning Commission v. Laird, 2018 WL 1025031 (AL Civ App. 2/23/18), the court reversed the decision of a planning commission made on appeal from the subdivision committee. The ordinances at issue allowed the planning commission to hear appeals ab initio, but there was no evidence that it had voted to do so in this case. There was also no evidence that the planning commission had reviewed the transcript from the subdivision committee’s meeting or listened to the audio recording. As a result, the court found, the planning commission failed to comply with another ordinance provision that required appeals to be determined based on the record of the subdivision committee’s meeting.

The meaningful hearing requirement was more directly at issue in State ex rel. Kelly Brothers Mason v. County Commission of Franklin County, 2018 WL 2207786 (MO App. 5/15/18), which found a procedural due process violation where the opponents of a rezoning were only given an opportunity to testify before the planning commission after it had already voted to recommend approval of the application to the county commission. As the court explained: “To deny certain interested parties the opportunity to be heard at the critical stage of the zoning amendment process when the PZC [planning and zoning commission] is formulating its statutorily-mandated recommendation to be used by the county commission to render its decision on the application falls well short of providing procedural due process because the appellants were denied the opportunity to be heard at a meaningful time and in a meaningful manner. The ‘meaningful time’ was… before the PZC issued its recommendation and the ‘meaningful manner’ was simply to allow the appellants to be heard.”

The Supreme Court of Georgia reached a similar result in Hoechstetter v. Pickens County, 2018 WL 2465513 (GA 6/4/18). This case involved a conditional use permit application that had been referred to the planning commission for its recommendation, with the final decision to be made by the county board of commissioners. While a hearing was held before the planning commission, the only record that was sent to the board of commissioners was a one-page memorandum that was prepared by the county’s director of public relations and merely stated that testimony was heard from the applicant as well as objections from neighborhood residents. The hearing before the planning commission might have satisfied the zoning procedures law, the court concluded, but only if an adequate record had been made and provided to the board of commissioners. But on the facts of this case, the hearing testimony simply couldn’t be found to have meaningfully informed the final decision by the board of commissioners, since the memorandum failed to even disclose the nature of the objections raised before the planning commission.

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