Citizen complaints to issued land-use permits are problematic on many levels, among these being that the land owner has already invested in work after the permit was approved, and that citizens have become unhappy with city operations. Individual city staff, even specialty departments, can hardly be everywhere and see everything from residents’ perspective. Furthermore, due to an unfortunate history of governmental favoritism and corruption and a general lack of transparency prior to the 21st century, it was not surprising that residents exhibited a considerable lack of faith in the permit process. The decision was made to open the windows in the permit system.
The civil affairs jury system was initiated to provide external input to the District’s decision-making processes. No longer would citizen complaints be sent to district staff who could safely ignore them. Nor is this a citizen’s referendum, with delayed and costly voting by those who may not understand all the issues, but instead a mechanism where external experts could hear the voices of concerned stakeholders and help craft a mutually-acceptable outcome. All stakeholders may be present in a public forum, where input from all sides can be heard by all involved, and the jury – those with moral influence and established professional credibility – were recognized by all players.
Where 5 or more complaints are received to an announced permit application, a civil affairs jury is initiated. City staff are involved in managing the jury process, in terms of announcing hearings, organizing the jury pool, and providing administrative services to the jury. The city, however, does not control the hearing nor affect the outcomes of the hearing. The jury is drawn from a pool of pre-registered experts from a variety of fields, including university faculty, attorneys, private (licensed) financial and construction professionals, religious leaders, and NGO officials. The permit applicant and a single representative for those who object to the permit are the principal “adversaries” in the hearing, but based on time available, other stakeholders (from the audience) also speak. Jury members, led by their jury president, ask questions of participants and aim for mediation.
Where the issue is not resolved, a re-hearing may be scheduled. The jury is not the final appeal in the administrative process – and civil court is also an option for those who are disappointed in the District’s civil affairs proceedings.
A true case: A developer obtained land and applied for a permit to build two 20-story “OfficeTel” (mixed commercial-residential unit) towers. 269 neighbors objected that these towers would infringe upon their right of sunshine on their property, increase traffic, etc. The builder insisted that the plans are consistent with zoning regulations. Through the work of the civil affairs jury the developer agreed to reduce the height of the western tower to reduce the impact of building shade on the adjacent lands and decrease residential traffic.