Kudos to the City of Greensboro for boldly keeping land use development projects moving through the approval pipeline despite local and State stay-at-home orders.

Last week, while sitting in my living room, I “appeared” before the Greensboro Zoning Commission on behalf of a developer of a 193-acre industrial project. The following night I “appeared” before the City Council for a multi-family project. Greensboro’s learning curve for virtual hearings (not to mention my own) is steep, but it will be that much further ahead of other jurisdictions when the next round of hearings begin.

Why is it important to proceed virtually and not wait? Because land contracts have deadlines and often require payment of hard cash for extensions. Project financing has usually been arranged at this point in the process. Construction contracts have been signed, and contractors need to know what projects are in their own pipeline. The list goes on.

Technical problems and meeting logistics were many. During the Zoning Commission hearing, my Wi-Fi access went out and I had to reboot to get it back. Fortunately, it occurred well before my time to present. There were problems with staff and commission members forgetting to mute and unmute their microphones and commission members’ dogs barking. My power point was partially covered by other things on the screen, and to speak you had to click a “raise hand” button.

At the City Council hearing, one client representative in her first Zoom meeting could not “get in” to the meeting. Some council members were seeking permission to speak and the mayor was not able to see the “raised hand” on her screen. Another attorney told me he had a 5 second delayed echo that made his job difficult. But we all made it through.

I’m confident that we’ll be better at this next month. And Zoom and its competitors will be listening to feedback from local and State governments and create new functions and capabilities to address current limitations. The UNC School of Government, I’m sure, will do seminars.

But some issues with virtual meetings cannot be addressed by IT teams and School of Government seminars. After my previous post about virtual hearings, reader Monroe Pannell commented that rural areas lacking adequate broadband will not be able to do what Charlotte and Greensboro and Raleigh can do. And Monroe is right. As far as I know, there’s no money in the stimulus package for rural broadband upgrades. Even if it were, needed upgrades are multi-year processes.

Add to limited broadband the fact that quasi-judicial proceedings aren’t simple public hearings.  They allow cross-examination and inspection of opposing parties’ documents and rulings on standing and admissibility of evidence. Can we do those by video conference?

As a veteran of these types of hearings, I’m leery. Yes, some of them have no controversy and could probably proceed. But when I represent the developers of landfills and rock quarries and asphalt plants, I’m more effective when I can see board members’ faces, watch the room to spot citizens in opposition, and stand at a podium to speak with full control over tone, volume, and pace for effective communication.

This leery stance, of course, is coming from the same guy who said with great confidence in the early days of e-commerce, “you might be able to buy a book from Amazon, but you have to physically drive the car and lie on the mattress and walk in the shoes before you buy them. E-commerce is limited!”

If nothing else, I think I’ve finally learned not to say “it’ll never happen.” If and when virtual meetings become more the norm, we all need to be like Greensboro and take extra precautions to make sure citizens in the virtual room are not being overlooked.

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