GAINESVILLE – How to safely hold public hearings and afford opportunity for community comment on land-use decisions, in the midst of growing COVID-19 concerns, has the Hall County Commission scrambling for answers.
Monday afternoon a special called meeting was held by the Hall County Commission immediately after adjourning its work session. In that special called meeting all ten items commissioners just moments earlier approved for consideration at the January 14th voting session were tabled.
Those ten items were tabled for two weeks and added to the agenda for the January 28th voting session. They join two other land-use agenda items already scheduled for that January 28th meeting, making a dozen decisions for that evening, all of which, by law, require a time for the public to make comment.
It would be a busy evening under normal conditions, but with a recent spike in the number of COVID-19 cases across our area, that meeting takes on a whole new significance.
County Administrator Jock Connell said as the special called meeting began regarding the items scheduled for Thursday, “Each of these land-use items are going to bring a significant number of people into this room. We could have well over 150, maybe 200 people based on some of these land-use items.”
“And we didn’t want to create an environment where we were bringing people in here to possibly expose each other…we felt it was best if we at least table these until January the 28th,” Connell said.
“It’s not so much this room here,” Connell told commissioners as he pointed out across the large commission meeting room, “because we can spread them out. It’s when they get out by the elevator corridor, and it’s just human nature for people to huddle up and talk, and we lose control of being able to separate folks.”
But Connell knows that repeatedly delaying decisions which require public comment opportunity by tabling them can only go on for a limited amount of time. “We recognize that we can’t keep tabling,” Connell said. So he proposed some options as to what the county might do over the next month and asked the commissioners for their thoughts.
As a first option, he explained that each item could be heard at a specific and unique time, but that could mean a dozen separate meetings for the commissioners.
He also said multiple items could be considered in one evening with each item having a specific time slot at which it would be heard, decided and the room cleared for another item to be considered. But the downside of that, Connell explained, would be an item could exceed its allocated time and a domino effect could bring chaos to the evening’s schedule.
A third option suggested by Connell would be to group items together, blending items where little to no comment was expected with one of the items staff sees as drawing a large number of people. He said two sessions could be held on consecutive nights with two sessions each evening.
“We’re also going to evaluate a totally virtual set-up,” Connell added, one in which all presentations and comments would be made online or through other electronic means.
Further complicating the process is the fact that each hearing must be, by law, advertised in the local newspaper, including its start time, at least 15-days prior to its occurrence.
“We’ll continue to monitor what’s going on in the community over the next few days…but I’m not expecting that COVID is going away…in the next few days,” he said matter-of-factly. “And we’ll begin to work with you to craft a plan as to how we proceed on the 28th.”
Commissioners discussed the suggested options and voted to hold hearings over a two day period, Wednesday, January 27, and Thursday, January 28, with two sessions each evening: the first session begins at 4:00 p.m. and the second at 6:00 p.m. The meeting room will be cleared between sessions.
As to which application is held during each session, that detail will be decided this week according to Hall County Planning Director Sarah McQuade. She said parties involved with each application, and those owning property within 500-feet of each land-use application, will be notified by mail regarding the scheduled time for their application and that the full 12-item agenda schedule will be available for viewing on the Hall County website by the end of the week.