By editorial board • 

Both sides should get a say before staff weighs in

The problem with lengthy land-use hearings isn’t that they take many hours most would rather spend at home with family. It’s that citizens feel the decisions have already been made before they get their turn.

We do not believe replacing citizen members of the planning commission and landmarks committee with a professional hearings officer would alleviate that perception. In fact, it may make it worse. Local government would seem even more indifferent, forcing people to talk to a bureaucratic functionary rather than a panel of fellow citizens.

There are many governments in the region that use hearings officers. But here in McMinnville, we treasure our historically close relationship between the government and governed. That makes it an expensive idea that sends the wrong message.

Planning Director Heather Richards brought it up Sept. 10, after being asked by councilors for thoughts on how to streamline land-use hearings. She went on to detail the legal requirements, which confine public input and decisionmaker latitude to narrow parameters.

Therein lies the problem.

Hearings typically start with an in-depth staff report taking the view the applicant has met all relevant criteria, thus deserves approval. Then the applicant gets to make a pitch of his or her own, justifying the favorable staff recommendation.

Length only becomes an issue when people feel they have waited hours to testify on what’s become a foregone conclusion, as the staff and applicant seem to be working in tandem.

A hearings officer would speed things up, but the staff and applicant would still get unlimited time to paint the decisionmaker into a legal corner. Only then would the interested citizen get tightly limited time to make the opposition case.

There’s another way.

Yamhill County allows the applicant and citizenry first shot, unfettered by staff input. The staff doesn’t weigh in until later, after it’s had a chance to take all testimony fully into account.

The recommendation still follows the prescribed legal path, but the public feels it got a fair shot. Hearings can last as long as they need to, but the public isn’t left feeling the fix was in.

Under Oregon law, land-use hearings must begin with a summation of the relevant legal criteria and a declaration that testimony, arguments and evidence adhere to it.

But that need not delay public testimony for hours, for the sake of a PowerPoint presentation ensuring panel members actually familiarized themselves with a staff report provided in advance.

Changing to the county model wouldn’t necessarily streamline the process. But the idea isn’t to get people out the door faster. It’s to assure them it was worth walking through the door in the first place.



Sandi Colvin

You just saved me a letter to the editor, thank you.

That the Planning Director feels a good way to save time is to cut out citizen involvement is a ridiculous and self-serving idea. The citizens get 3 minutes each to speak. That's it. No more. No ability to rebut or ask questions of anyone. Three minutes then sit down if you please. The court has indulged the peasants.

All told in the case of the Oak Ridge Meadows hearings (four of them), I believe opposition (citizen input) took up less than 1.5 hours with a total of nearly 15 hours of hearings.

If cutting out 1.5 hours out of 15 is what the director thinks is an option to make the hearings shorter, (besides the math angle of that equation) she obviously hasn't once thought about what has historically made McMinnville as great as it is; citizen input, involvement and consideration.

Citizens need more voice. Not less.

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