Two special guests were invited to the Greater Pine Island Civic Association meeting Feb. 5 to discuss the hearing examiner process.
Chief Hearing Examiner Diana Parker said the hearing officer program started in 1988 in Lee County. She said the Board of County Commissioners became tired of staying up until two or three in the morning listening to all the cases.
"It got to the point that they couldn't keep up with it," she said, which encouraged them to look at options that would make the process easier. "They came up with the hearing examiner program."
The first zoning hearing was held in January 1989.
"The board decided that they were so happy because all they had to do was listen to the summary," Parker said. "They didn't have to listen to all the pieces and parts."
In addition, code enforcement, which was a voluntary board at the time, was taken over by the hearing examiner as well.
Parker said the main thing that occurred after the program began was it leveled the playing field between the developers and the public. She said the community did not have easy access to speak with the commissioners, while the developer had the option to pay someone to sit at the commissioners' chambers all day until they could speak with someone.
"It put everyone on the same level," Parker said. "It's been a good process, one of the best in the state as far as leveling the playing field."
Due to Parker retiring in June after 22 years, Laura Belflower was hired on May 17 to take over her position.
"Lee County is pretty unique in this process," Belflower said. "It allows a leveling of the playing field. The applicant can come in with their information, public, staff and others can provide the information, too."
Belflower said variances and special exceptions are finalized with the hearing examiner's decision and a request for rezoning goes before the County Commission after the hearing examiner provides a recommendation.
Parker said a hearing examiner cannot discuss cases that are pending or something that is coming up the pike. The commissioners also cannot talk about the cases when outside of the board meeting.
Belflower said in the early '90s the process changed to quasi-judicial. She said they are looking for information that is fact-based that is related to a certain criteria that the different kinds of applicants have to meet.
"The most common situation is compatibility, how it fits into a neighborhood," she said.
Belflower told the crowd Tuesday night that the community's input is very meaningful in the process.
"Give us as much meaningful information as you possibly can," she said.
Belflower encourages the community to get the latest changes to the application, which can be accomplished by finding out who the planner is for the case, before they make a testimony at the hearing.
"Come in and give a testimony," she said. "Give as much support as you can."
The support, Belflower said, should be given as, "I don't think it is the right thing because ..."
"You are an expert in your experience, what happens around your house, around your community, personal knowledge," Belflower said, adding that hearsay is not given a whole lot of weight during a hearing, but a relevant fact does carry weight.
Parker said they take the evidence from the hearing and write a recommendation to the board.
"We can't talk to the board either," she said. "We need to tell them in our recommendation."
Parker said the commissioners' decision is only as good as the information they provide to them.
"If we leave something out that is important, the board doesn't know about it," she said. "If I haven't seen it, the board doesn't see it."
Belflower said the hearing process is to gather as much information as possible.
Belflower also provided advice to those who attended the meeting regarding what they should do with letters and petitions for a hearing. She said although letters and petitions formed by groups, as well as taking votes at meetings, is helpful information in understanding how the community as a whole feels, it does not provide them with the exact information they need for the hearing.
"That statement is all you have," Belflower said. "Generally a waste of time in the kind of information we need and the facts that we have."
Parker said if you submit a piece of paper that has 200 signatures, the applicant is going to object because they cannot cross examine the people.
"Receiving pieces of paper with names on it doesn't fulfill the requirements," she said. "It is helpful what the community as a whole is looking at our decision is not based on numbers. It is based on your concerns and whether or not we can address them."