A Closer Look at the Study Paper on Public Hearings: Cons of Public Hearings
May 25, 2022
BY Kevin Zakreski
This post is part of a series highlighting BCLI’s Study Paper on Public Hearings: An Examination of Public Participation in the Adoption of Local Bylaws on Land Use and Planning. For other posts in the series click here.
Arguments against public hearings: The current law fails to enhance democratic decision-making
Critics of the current law often argue that it gives a greater say to a relatively small class of people, who often may not have views that are aligned with the opinions and needs of the broader community. This argument was featured in a recent report (PDF) on British Columbia’s housing crisis, which was critical of the current law on public hearings.
“We believe that democratic processes are important,” the authors of the report said, “but that overreliance on public hearings to make land use decisions tends to favour certain voices over others.” Further, the authors noted that “those who support or stand to benefit from new housing supply often do not attend public hearings to voice their views and priorities,” while “the citizens most motivated and available to participate in the process generally oppose the development plans.” This disparity leads to a system in which “[s]uch proceedings contribute to a land use planning system that prevents new housing supply in two ways: first, by restricting or impeding growth as a consequence of lengthy, uncertain and costly processes; and second, by allowing anti-development interests to apply disproportionate political pressure on decision makers.”
This line of criticism also appears prominently in many academic discussions of public hearings. As one law professor has concluded, “[l]and use law is structured to provide the most voice—and therefore the most power—to a small group of stakeholders: those who live nearest to a proposed development and bear the biggest potential burdens. Land use law, by design, activates a project’s fiercest opponents.” This commentator also cited “a study of public participation in the land use process,” which “showed, quantitatively, that those who speak at zoning hearings overwhelmingly live within a block or two of the proposed development and oppose it (speakers are also disproportionately white, male, and likely to own a home).” As another commentator has put it, “[t]he holding of a public hearing by itself will not attract the unorganized and the uninvolved”—even if their views may be in the majority.
For more information on this topic—or to see the citations for the quoted material—read the Study Paper on Public Hearings: An Examination of Public Participation in the Adoption of Local Bylaws on Land Use and Planning.