CLEARWATER — The panel that reviews development plans is considering creating a handout to help the public understand its rights as well as procedures before the board.

The goal: To make Community Development Board hearings more citizen-friendly and reduce confusion that can lengthen hearings.

CDB Chairman Michael E. Boutzoukas and the board’s six other members spent a portion of their July 16 meeting reviewing the 7-hour June 25 hearing where they approved an 80-unit condominium project for scenic Edgewater Drive.

The marathon June meeting was packed with local residents and other citizens, most of whom were opposed to the project. A lineup of dozens of witnesses came to the podium with drawings, photographs, and other homemade exhibits to face off against experts from developer Valor Capital.

In the end, the board voted 5-2 to allow Valor Capital to build the seven-story condo at the corner of Edgewater Drive and Sunset Point Road. Kate Belniak, president of the Edgewater Drive Neighborhood Association, filed an appeal July 8.

Different rules for quasi-judicial hearings

Because the CDB’s June 25 hearing was quasi-judicial, with rules of procedure and cross-examination, many residents — and some board members — were unsure of the rules.

On July 16, Boutzoukas and other board members — being cautious not to affect Belniak’s upcoming appeal — discussed educating residents who plan to participate in hearings. The discussion is titled “Item Agenda G.: Meeting Procedures, Quasi-judicial hearings, cross-examination of witnesses by persons with party status” on the city public streaming page.

Board members said they like the idea of developing a handout for citizens that describes procedure, including how long witnesses can speak, rules for cross-examining witnesses, and the difference between residents who have “party status” and those who are simply witnesses.

According to legal experts, people claim party status before boards because they believe they will be adversely affected by a board’s decision; they must identify and document the facts showing how they will be adversely affected or hurt by the decision. That includes homeowners who believe the value of their home will decrease due to a project.

Clearwater Assistant Planning and Development Director Gina Clayton opened the discussion by suggesting the panel create a handout to help citizens understand how the hearings work.

“In our copies of the procedures we have a three-minute time limit, but yet in your copy … it has no time limit,” Clayton said to Boutzoukas. “We want to make sure everyone is on the same page. We find that it’s a little confusing if you’re a citizen and you don’t have legal representation, what rights you have in party status. (It) made me think we could create some sort of handout to help guide people.”

Cross-examination rules for all

Boutzoukas said he liked the idea of written instructions, especially for rules of cross-examinations.

“I was mulling it through my head multiple times since that last hearing, saying, ‘Our hands were tied,’ but how the heck would we do it differently? I think some kind of a handout explaining the process about what is permissible and not permissible on cross-examination (will work) so it is tied to people actually testifying about what people (previously) testified about.”

Board member Lau agreed that written directions would help citizens.

“I like the idea of a handout,” she said. “I’m assuming it is something you would make available at the meeting before the meeting gets started, as people are arriving. I would like just the information in our script on what party status means, because it is important for folks to know that party status holds a right of appeal. I like that idea.”

Board member D. Michael Flanery said he liked the idea of written materials to educate those involved in CDB hearings, but pointed the finger at himself and other board members.

“I’d like to see CDB Training 101 and 102,” he told his fellow board members. “When I was on the Environmental Advisory Board, we had a purpose statement, ‘Why we are here.’ I can’t find a purpose statement for CDB, just that what my role is on the CDB. Is it to represent the good of the city of Clearwater, or is it to be the appeals board for city staff?”

How about city mentors?

Flanery would like more than just a handout for residents.

“I don't see a need for a class for residents,” he said. “In cases like this, they need an experienced advocate, someone with experience in the law that can help them get a unified response together,” he said. “It would be great for a neighborhood association to be assigned planning staff contacts to be on their side.”

Bill Jonson, who represented the Clearwater Neighborhoods Coalition at the June 25 CDB hearing, said “It would be good, as suggested by CDB members, to have more information easily accessible to the public on the details of how the meeting process works.”

Jonson believes, however, that the city can do its part to provide legal experts who can guide opposition to such projects.

“The process (and board members) assume that there are legal experts that are available for members of the public to utilize when they question a project before the board,” he said. “The process to find those people needs to be visible to the public. In the … Edgewater case I know that there was difficulty finding an attorney/planner familiar with the Clearwater Code.”

Boutzoukas — keeping in mind the upcoming appeal hearing — said the board should do more to educate residents about CDB proceedings.

Defining party status

“At the end of the day, the consensus is, let’s get some materials together that aren’t crossing the line of giving legal advice, but kind of explain the process,” he said. “Party status means you get these rights. The materials will explain what cross-examination means, that you are able to inquire about what has already been testified to or get clarification. If you don’t understand what that means, get an attorney.”

Other board members suggested posting the instructions online, or linking the educational material to online notices of upcoming CDB hearings.

“We can ask people if they have read the procedures and materials, that way we know they were given an opportunity to look at it even it if’s just before the meeting begins,” the chairman said.

That’s not to say Planning Department staff isn’t available to answer questions from citizens. Clayton told Boutzoukas that she and other planning staff members had called Edgewater residents and alerted them when the date of the initial Edgewater hearing changed.

Assistant City Manager Micah Maxwell said the Planning Department is willing to help citizens with the process.

“Our staff will take time to explain the development review process to residents, as well as talking through their concerns so that they can try and work through issues with the developer,” Maxwell said. “Oftentimes that will include speaking to them about code sections related to the topic and explaining how they are applied. Our code does spell out the procedures themselves for development review along with some flow charts that identify the process under the appropriate type of development review.”

Clearwater City Attorney Pam Akin or another city official would have to review any material before it would be published or distributed to citizens, the CDB attorney said.