Since the beginning of the pandemic, once-sleepy towns and hamlets across the Hudson Valley and Catskills have been facing the pressing need to grow to accommodate an influx of new residents. Whether it’s someone hoping to complete renovations on a building to open a new business or the construction of an apartment complex with affordable housing units, there has been a flurry of new development over the past few years. But when it comes to matters of municipal development, there are always positives and negatives on both sides.
For those who are involved in municipal government, Lavine says the key to fostering truly constructive engagement from residents and providing them with diverse and equitable opportunities for public participation is to help make the development review process more transparent and responsive to stakeholders from all parts of the community.
Increasing Equitable Access to Information
According to Lavine, local governments are already required to provide public participation opportunities under the New York State Open Meetings Law, and they can also establish more robust frameworks for community engagement. “As a starting point, local governments can enable more informed public engagement by making sure that information about the development review process is accessible online, including information about public meetings and proposed zoning and planning actions,” she says.
In addition, local governments can leverage various digital technologies to make the development review process more open and accessible to community members. “For example, local governments can distribute online surveys to solicit a broad range of public opinions, and allowing the public to view and participate in meetings remotely via videoconferencing and live streaming can help overcome accessibility barriers and generate increased public interest,” Lavine says. “Social media platforms can also be used to share information, gather feedback, and engage with stakeholders in real-time.”
Fostering Inclusivity and a Diversity of Voices
Beyond these digital strategies, Lavine says that local governments can take simple and proactive steps to encourage inclusivity, such as conducting outreach to underrepresented groups, offering workshops and training programs, and allowing members of the public to make comments in writing, online, or in person. Lavine also notes the importance of providing information about public participation in multiple languages to make the development process more open and accessible in multilingual communities.
“In the end, public engagement will always have a significant role to play in the land use and development process,” Lavine says. “The preamble to New York State’s Open Meetings Law says it well: ‘It is essential to the maintenance of a democratic society that the public business be performed in an open and public manner…. The people must be able to remain informed if they are to retain control over those who are their public servants. It is the only climate under which the commonwealth will prosper and enable the governmental process to operate for the benefit of those who created it.’”
This is not to be considered legal advice. You should contact an attorney to discuss your specific situation.
This article appeared in the July 18, 2023 edition of Chronogram online.