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With Development Approvals on Hold, City Authorizes Virtual Commission Meetings

Brent Warren Brent Warren With Development Approvals on Hold, City Authorizes Virtual Commission MeetingsA screenshot of a recent zoning committee meeting of the Clintonville Area Commission that was held virtually.
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Mayor Andrew Ginther signed an executive order yesterday that will clear the way for area commissions, design review boards and historic commissions to meet virtually starting this month. That could mean approvals for some development proposals that have been held up since the cancellation of all such meetings in March.

Along with the order, which removes any legal barriers to meeting remotely that may be present in an individual commission’s by-laws, the city is also making certain resources available to the neighborhood groups, including access to the WebEx platform for hosting either video conferences or conference calls.

Pages on the city’s website are also being set up for commissions to post meeting notices and agendas, in order to comply fully with open records laws.

Some area commissions have already been experimenting with virtual meetings. The zoning committee of the Clintonville Area Commission met via Zoom last night, voting on several cases, and the full commission is scheduled to meet in the same way on May 7. Last night’s meeting was live-streamed on the commission’s YouTube page.

The Southside Area Commission has also tried out meeting virtually, holding a bylaws committee via WebEx in April.

Curtis Davis, chair of the zoning committee of the Southside Area Commission, told Columbus Underground (before yesterday’s announcement) they were hoping to hold more meetings virtually, but were waiting on guidance from the city.

“I have over 15 applications in the queue” for zoning approval, he said, adding that some commissioners had expressed concerns about access to virtual meetings for those who may not have computers or a consistent internet connection.

Stephen Hardwick, chair of the zoning committee of the Clintonville Area Commission, acknowledged that some people won’t be able to the access online meetings, but pointed out that in-person meetings can be difficult for some people to get to as well.

“Virtual meetings have access issues, but people with jobs, families, and mobility challenges often find it hard to attend physical meetings,” he said. “So when we restart in-person meetings, I hope we can find a way to keep allowing virtual participation.”

Hardwick also said that more work will need to be done to allow public comment during a meeting.

For Doreen Uhas Sauer, President of the University Area Commission, the issue of public participation is a significant one.

“At a grass roots level of neighborhood negotiation on variances and development issues, public input means dialogue, not simply sending an email in favor or opposition,” she said. “Without a means by which this could happen, it seems any vote on a controversial issue could raise flags for the side that did not feel it had means for an adequate voice.”

Brian Williams, chair of the zoning committee of the University Area Commission, said that pending zoning applications in the University District are “piling up, but not overwhelmingly.”

Projects that are pending before the city’s design review boards and historic commissions – such as the Downtown Commission, German Village Commission and the University Area Review Board – require a certificate of appropriateness from those bodies before they can move forward (the votes of area commissions, on the other hand, are only advisory).

The city will make staff available to host video meetings – starting in mid-May – for the review boards and historic commissions, and will ensure that case materials can be shared onscreen, that applicants and others can provide sworn testimony, and that the meetings will be open to the public. See the website for each commission for further information.

The city, in announcing yesterday’s executive order, stated that there were “approximately 140 development applications currently pending before these bodies,” listing significant projects like the Scioto Peninsula development and the redevelopment of the Neil Avenue Giant Eagle.

It’s too soon to tell if all of those projects will move forward, or if the economic uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic ends up being a bigger factor in slowing development than a gap in public meetings.

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