The Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA) held its first reading of an amendment to the rules of procedure for the Board’s records.
The amendment seeks to increase members’ access to applications in advance of their public hearings, while ensuring members remain impartial with regard to the cases they consider.
No members of the public attended the public hearing on the proposed amendment.
“The member’s sole purpose in reviewing the application and/or file prior to hearing is to familiarize him/herself with the location of the property and the general request of the applicant,” the proposed amendment says. “This purpose will allow the member to ask better, more informed questions during the upcoming hearing; however, the member is precluded from conducting research related to the application because the application must be decided on the basis of the evidence presented at the hearing.”
Alternate member Suzanne Brunelle said she finds it challenging to focus on evidence an applicant presents in a public hearing when she is trying to read through the documents in their file.
While members are permitted to read files in the Town Clerk’s Office prior to a hearing, the amendment would permit members to access electronic packets with the applications to be presented at their meetings.
“The intent was to get the applications to us in an electronic format,” Brunelle said.
The Board asked that the proposed amendment be revised to include language saying documents will be made available to the Board electronically or otherwise when the public hearing is noticed, 10 days prior to the hearing.
Member Neil Dunn agreed with the need to expand the Board’s access to applications prior to their public hearings, but expressed concern with language preventing members from conducting research in advance of the hearing.
“I think the intent of this is to make sure a board member is going to base their decision on the information that is presented at the hearing. It’s not up to the board member to try to develop an argument for or against the application,” Chairman James Smith said.
“Right now there’s no procedure in place to say we’re avoiding that prejudgment or bias,” Planning Director Colleen Mailloux said, noting planning staff will re-work the language of the proposed amendment to address Dunn’s concerns regarding a restriction on research prior to a hearing while maintaining the requirement members remain objective.
According to the proposed amendment, “While members frequently have some familiarity with a particular piece of property and/or applicant, that familiarity and a pre-hearing reading of the application is insufficient to make a determination on the application.”
Additionally, the amendment states members may not discuss applications or related documents with one another or anyone else and that pre-hearing discussions among board members constitute “meetings” in violation of the New Hampshire Right to Know Law.
“Pre-hearing discussions are also perceived, rightly or wrongly, as a pre-hearing determination on the application. It is critically important for Zoning Board Members not only to be fair and impartial, but also to appear fair and impartial,” the amendment says.
The Board will hold a second reading and public hearing for the proposed amendment at their May 18 meeting, with adoption to follow.