Please learn civil procedure before you drag us through hours of frustration

So I realise I just ranted about the rules of civil procedure, but, like, people, going to city council meetings sometimes sorely tests my patience, and I really need to stress that it’s not just rude to fail to pay attention to how meetings are conducted. It can also be a huge waste of time when you don’t understand civil procedure at all, but people are still forced to sit through your well-meaning but misguided attempts to get something done.

Every state and municipality runs things slightly differently. They are often labyrinthine and frustrating, and I know it’s annoying to plunge through endless pages of documentation to find out how something works. However, city council staff are often interested in explaining the ins and outs of something, and they’re willing to do so. It is in fact a component of their jobs, and taking the time to pick up that knowledge will be hugely helpful.

This issue came up for me a few months ago with determined attempts to block a development. Now, let’s be clear: I think the development is a terrible idea, and I will contribute that point of view to ongoing discussions about it. But I also understand how the system works, and how to most efficiently use my efforts.

Again, different areas do things differently, but development often involves clearance from both city council and the planning commission (members are usually appointed by the city council). It’s a very lengthy and complicated process.

The thing is, if someone owns land, they kind of do have a legal right to develop it, so long as they comply with the law and their development meets the given standards of an area. If I own a lot in a residential district in town, I can’t build a night club on it, because the land isn’t zoned for that use, and the planning commission will turn my application down. That doesn’t deprive me of my freedom or any such thing: I chose to buy that particular lot (or perhaps I inherited it) and I have to work with its limitations. Or maybe I want to build an apartment building, but it doesn’t match density requirements. Or gets too close to the lot line. Or any number of things. We have restrictions on new construction for a reason, but in the end, we can’t just arbitrarily say that property owners can’t do anything with their property. (Unless we want to buy it and put it into conservatorship as a park or open space.)

So here I go to the planning commission and I say ‘I would like to build this thing.’ The commission might say ‘no, you need to go back and revise your plans.’ Or they might say yes, or they might say ‘but you need an environmental impact report.’ So I in turn would start a developer account with the city, and I would request that the city contract a firm on my behalf, and city council would select a provider.

City council doesn’t actually get to decide whether I can build my development. They can’t. They can’t even express opinions on it, because the EIR will come back to them for certification and members who express opinions would have to recuse themselves for bias. They have to decide whether the document is sufficient, or needs to be redone. THEN I can go to the planning commission with my completed application, the commission can hold a hearing, members of the public can comment, and the commission can decide whether to grant my application.

Trying to block the EIR contract isn’t going to stop my development. It’s going to make a nuisance for everyone. During the EIR scoping phase, that’s the time for someone to get in there and start listing out concerns for evaluation. It’s a perfect opportunity to identify issues with my development and make sure they are handled in the EIR. For example, maybe someone thinks I’m going to use too much water, or believes that there’s a threatened or endangered species on the land.

Maybe the EIR comes back to get certified and it’s bad. That’s another opportunity for members of the public to step up during public comment and explain that they want a better document. City council can decide whether those concerns are merited and make a decision. Maybe they send it on over to the planning commission because they feel it’s sufficient. Then the public gets to step in again.

There are tons of places during the process that represent appropriate, and also effective, places to intervene. Other places are not so great. Understanding how civil procedure works allows people to use their efforts extremely efficiently, saving energy and organising power for where it will do the most good. It will also greatly reduce irritation on the part of public officials who have to smile and nod, which means that they are more likely to listen when you take things to them during the appropriate period. That’s just the way it is: If you want people to support what you are trying to do, you need to pick the right time to do it, or you’re going to get stonewalled.

This kind of thing is important, because issues like this are important. Shitty developments can and should be opposed, but it takes a long of organising power to do it, especially when it comes to get people to turn out in support. Those people tend to get bored and frustrated when it seems like nothing is happening, and they lose interest. If you focus your energies on the perfect moment to strike, you’ll have a huge impact.

So when you see something going on in your community that you don’t like, by all means, say something. But first, get the law of the land and find out when your words are going to have maximum effect, and who you should direct those words at.

Image: Interstate 980: Freeway project, Eric Fischer, Flickr