One thing the pandemic has not stopped is development, at least in the city of Peoria, and one of the most important parts of the process is gaining input from the public.
But what happens when meeting in large groups publicly is no longer an option?
This has been a big topic of conversation in the planning world, and especially in Peoria, where the coronavirus has not slowed zoning cases.
Planning Manager Lorie Dever said the question has become, how the city maintains the health and safety of residents while ensuring the public is engaged in the development process.
“Like so many other things, the city has had to adjust its public outreach to keep our residents healthy and safe,” she said. “We have been extending multiple options for residents to contact us. But have we had enough opportunities for our residents to reach out? We continue to do our best and we continue to look for ways to improve and we are always willing to listen and adjust and would like to improve going forward.”
Most commonly, public outreach is required for general plan amendments, rezonings and conditional-use permit cases. Approval of these cases allow applicants to change the use of their property.
Most recently the Peoria City Council approved a rezoning from planned unit development to Carioca Co. planned-area development to accommodate for a 37-acre mixed-use project consisting of commercial, retail, multifamily residential and light industrial uses at the northeast corner of Lake Pleasant Parkway and Old Carefree Highway.
On a smaller level, the planning and zoning commission last week approved a request for a conditional-use permit to allow for the operation of Auto Glass Express in an existing 1,932-square-foot building at 6720 W. Peoria Ave.
Peoria has a number of public outreach requirements to address such cases.
Residents will receive first notice of a case via a notice of application postcard that lets people know about the case.
Ms. Dever said this provides transparency regarding the case and provides contact information for residents to reach out to city.
A major requirement for such cases is the neighborhood meeting, when the applicant and city officials are available in-person to field resident questions or concerns.
“[The neighborhood meeting] has been the most challenging component of public outreach during COVID time,” Ms. Dever said.
With the pandemic, the city has pivoted toward virtual meetings, this includes planning and zoning commission as well as council meetings, where these cases are considered.
Neighborhood meetings have also been conducted online.
Ms. Dever said there have been lessons learned in hosting virtual platforms since March, when the pandemic took hold.
Applicants have also had in-person meetings one-on-one or with limited people to provide another option for those who don’t like virtual meetings.
Ms. Dever said this requires multiple meetings because of social distancing restrictions, but has been helpful for some.
She said online meetings have seen the most use so far, but it is hard to say whether it is a just a trend or a new standard.
The level of interaction has been good — sometimes a handful of residents will participate and sometimes there will be 20 and beyond, she said.
“We think moving forward with virtual meetings is something we will look at long-term because there is quite a bit of interest from the participation level. I think we are engaging more effectively right now in some ways than we have in quite a while,” she said. “We have a variety of touch points, so throughout we can respond to inquiries and provide information as needed.”
These cases often end in a hearing at the planning commission or council.
Planning and Community Development Director Chris Jacques said a benefit of virtual meetings is that they can be recorded, and the applicant can place the recorded meeting on a project website.
“So if you are a citizen and you didn’t have the ability to attend that neighborhood meeting, in the past you would have missed your opportunity and you’d have to catch up at the planning commission,” he said. “Now you would have the ability to go back and watch the neighborhood meeting and see what comments were issued and what kind of feedback was received.”
The pandemic has caused a shift across the world in how meetings are conducted, moving from in-person gatherings to virtual ones. This is especially true for municipalities and public entities whose fundamental work revolves around public meetings.
Commissioner Clay Allsop, an employee of electricity provider APS, said virtual meetings have opened the door for more comments and access to more information, such as how many people are visiting the website to learn about a project.
“We have found that more people are making comments and visiting our virtual open houses than they ever were for in-person open houses, except maybe the fancy open houses that we all remember,” he said. “We are really pleased with the participation.”
On the other hand, many people prefer human interaction, leaving the discussion open for the future of public meetings.
“What drives good decisions is having those in-person meetings,” Commissioner Shawn Hutchinson said. “The discussions that ensue live and in person coming together as a board makes us a better organization.”
Philip Haldiman can be reached at 623-876-3697, email@example.com, or on Twitter @philiphaldiman.