BY MAIRE O’NEILL
A social media post by Democratic candidate for Los Alamos County Council Sean Williams featuring a video clip of part of Wednesday’s virtual Planning & Zoning Commission meeting is causing a stir.
During the meeting, County planner Ryan Foster announced that a site plan application for the proposed Marriott Hotel and Conference Center off Trinity Drive has been approved by the County’s Inter-Departmental Review Committee and will be presented for a hearing at the P&Z Commission’s Nov. 18 virtual meeting. Williams, a member of the Commission, did not comment during the ensuing discussion but posted the video clip Saturday with the following message:
“So this discussion happened at Planning and Zoning last week, regarding the Marriott coming before the Commission on Nov. 18. I know this video is 11 minutes long (excerpted from a 4 hour meeting), but I didn’t want to edit it in a way that could seem deceptive. Instead it’s just two clips: Ryan Foster talking about how the Marriott will be at P&Z (for context); then a jump forward to Jean Dewart asking about whether the meeting can be better-advertised, due to public interest in the case, and the entire discussion of that question,” he wrote.
Williams responded Sunday evening to a request for a comment as to why he posted the video clip.
“I have not, and will not, comment on an upcoming P&Z case. But that isn’t what this is about: the County has a reputation for lack of transparency, and I refuse to be part of the problem. I acted out of my commitment to open governance, out of a desire to change that reputation,” he said.
At Wednesday’s meeting, Commission member Jean Dewart noted that the site plan will be of interest to the public and asked Foster if County staff will consider some additional public notice about the meeting. Foster replied that based on COVID, the Community Development Department has a process they are using to adhere to the Chapter 16 requirement in the code for notification. He said he doesn’t anticipate the site plan for the Marriott project going to hearing being done any differently.
“My concern from a staff point of view would be if we were putting an additional burden on an applicant,” Foster said.
He went on to note that when it comes to things such as the downtown master plans the CDD can do a lot and has done a lot including “newspaper articles and radio interviews, banners in town” and social media.
“When it comes to cases that are coming to hearing, I’d be very concerned about doing something that would be different to another similar type case that was going to hearing,” Foster said.
Commission chair Terry Priestley said he didn’t think the commission is asking to do the hearing any differently because “it’s all the same process”.
“It’s just letting people know. There’s a perception that we’re not as transparent as a county as we should be and why wouldn’t we let people know this is coming. People are interested in it. It’s not a matter of meeting minimum requirements. It’s just letting people know that it’s coming up. It’s not doing anything different,” he said.
Foster replied that from CDD staff’s point of view he would be concerned that “we’re opening up the County to putting our thumb on the scale when it comes to creating a different way of noting a case going to hearing”.
“I’d be very comfortable utilizing the same exact process that we use for any other site plan application that goes to hearing. I’d personally be very uncomfortable in doing something that altered it for a specific case. I would think that would also open us up to sort of a potential lawsuit,” he said.
Chair Priestley said he didn’t understand.
“Figuring the hearing is run according to our process, there would be no putting your thumb on the scale,” he said.
Foster said he thought the scale issue would be that the Marriott case would get more notification so there would be more opportunity to weigh in on it as opposed to another case that didn’t get the same amount of notification.
CDD director Paul Andrus said Foster nailed it.
“This is where staff says in terms of what our rules are what our rules are, what our processes are. I think that’s an important piece for Planning and Zoning to understand. We’re not advocating to keep anything under wraps or secret; we are just playing by all the rules equally along the line.
Priestley pointed out that the Commission is meeting the “minimum requirements” and Andrus replied that that’s one way of putting it, to which Priestley responded, “That’s how I’ll put it”.
“Maybe we do look at the minimum requirements – absolutely because that’s our playing field. Thank you for recognizing it,” Andrus responded.
“Just so you guys know – I don’t agree with you. I would rather us exceed the requirements,” Priestley said.
Assistant County Attorney Kevin Powers said he thought Foster’s and Andrus’ concern was a little different to his. He said the thinks it’s perfectly fine to advertise the hearing in as many avenues as the Commission wants to.
“The thing that happens that worries us a little bit, (is that) a lot of people show up and a lot of people want to talk, and a lot of those people don’t have the official standing requirement, and so the hearing gets askew by receiving in a quasi-judicial hearing of process, those comments of people that legally don’t have standing to present evidence and cross examine and other things. And I think that’s the only concern,” Powers said.
Foster noted that the County is looking at updating the code and that there’s nothing that says a change to the notification couldn’t be considered.
“I just want to make sure that for every case they got the same type of notification. That would be my concern,” he said.
Andrus noted that the County is currently selling a couple of very small parcels of land on Trinity Drive.
“The question came up about outreach and so through our development agreement process, Council can say – and they did this with The Hill Apartments, ‘Would you be willing to do these things that aren’t necessarily in our code’, and I think in this case what we’re going to be asking the winner is that they do a neighborhood meeting that’s not required in our code previously which is something that Santa Fe and Albuquerque do as part of their code. It’s a pre-development meeting and so that’s a consideration for all of us to be thinking about,” Andrus. “I would differ with our attorney in saying we can require that. We cannot require that, it’s not in our code.”
He said the CDD can do additional advertising and that if that was something the Commission would like, more advertising could be done before the Marriott hearing.
County Councilor James Robinson, who is the Council’s liaison to the Commission noted that at a recent Council meeting he had requested that Council review its communication strategy and execution as a whole, based on feedback he has received from the community this year.
“My main goal is to raise what we deem the minimum requirements to a higher level where we are not being perceived as being less transparent than we are. It won’t happen in time for the Marriott meeting based on my perspective but word is going to get out. Whether we put out extra advertisements or not, you guys will have a full P&Z meeting anyway,” Robinson said. “We are going to be looking at how to better educate and more effectively communicate to the community for any item, not just items like a Marriott or other big developments.”
Robinson declined any further comment.
Councilor David Izraelevitz, who prior to being elected to Council spent several years on the Planning & Zoning Commission, commented to the Los Alamos Reporter Sunday evening.
“We all have an interest and a desire for public discussion about the many new projects in our County. We have to reflect, however, that when a project comes to P&Z or Council for quasi-judicial review, such as a site plan approval, we have to take care that every step protects the due process and property rights of all affected parties,” he said. “Newspaper editors may decide that a given project is of wide community interest, but I do not believe it is fair for those contributing to the final judgment to decide arbitrarily which projects do or do not meet this threshold. Some projects are of little interest to some but of major interest to others, so how to objectively determine which projects are of wide public interest is not an easy task.”
Izraelevitz said Council is looking at possible changes to the development code and communication processes but that until or unless such changes are made and codified, he sees no option but “to follow the same, consistent notice process for all quasi-judicial cases”.
When the Marriott project first came before County Council in August 2019, there were complaints about a perceived lack of publicity for the agenda item concerning an ordinance that would allow the County to grant the land for the project to the developer.