Last night, the Howard County Zoning Board (made up of the Howard County Council) held a virtual hearing on the Hickory Ridge Village Center redevelopment. To start the hearing, the Zoning Board considered a motion for continuance to delay hearing the case until after the coronavirus crisis subsides and it is safe to have in-person hearings again. After much consideration and after hearing the attorney representing residents opposed to the village center redevelopment and residents themselves present their case on why the hearing should be delayed, the Zoning Board voted to continue with the virtual proceedings now, and then immediately proceeded hearing the case. Zoning Board Chair Opel Jones, Vice Chair David Yungmann, and Christiana Rigby voted to conduct virtual hearings now while Deb Jung and Liz Walsh voted to delay.
I previously covered the proposed redevelopment and 5 year saga to redevelop the Hickory Ridge Village Center with new retail buildings and apartments in a feature article The Story behind the Hickory Ridge Village Center Redevelopment. Needless to say, the saga continues.
Earlier this year, prior to the pandemic, the Zoning Board held several in-person hearings that have allowed the attorneys and residents in support of the redevelopment of the Hickory Ridge Village Center to testify. The Hickory Ridge Village Board also provided testimony. The pandemic and closures happened prior the case continuing so those residents (over 100) who signed up to testify in opposition to the redevelopment had not yet had a chance to testimony in person.
Originally scheduled to continue in April, the Zoning Board hearings on the redevelopment were postponed until June 3 following coronavirus closures to allow the zoning board a chance to set up for virtually hearings. Accordingly, the Zoning Board set up a WebEx for conducting the hearing and a live stream for others to watch from home. Board Chair Jones and Vice Chair Yungmann worked with legal counsel to ensure that virtual hearings could be conducted in accordance with all rules and requirements of the Zoning Board. The Webex would allow the hearings to continue and provide an opportunity for all residents opposed to the redevelopment an opportunity to present their testimony virtually. IT support, multiple technology options, and patience would be provided to ensure that all who wish to testimony could do so. The Zoning Board assured all residents that they would give equal weight and consideration to the virtual testimony as they did to the in-person testimony already presented by those in support of the proposal, while recognizing the circumstances presented by the coronavirus crisis provides both challenges and opportunities for hearing the case.
Those opposed to continuing the hearing virtually argued that they would be denied due process because they are not afforded the same opportunity to present their case in person as residents in support of the redevelopment were afforded. Further, they argued that technically difficulties, a lack of access to IT equipment, the ability to show strength in numbers, being able to have side conversations or confer with the attorneys, and display emotions and passion while presenting in person would be denied. Zoning Board members Deb Jung and Liz Walsh argued that prior to proceeding with hearings virtually, the board should revisit the rules for conducting virtual hearings.
The argument to continue the hearings virtually were that WebEx allows for all who wish to testify to do so, and the Zoning Board would still be able to hear and give proper consideration to all testimony. Further, delaying the hearing would essentially amount to an indefinite delay given the uncertainty on when it will be safe to have an in-person hearing again with hundreds in attendance, many of which are senior citizens and most susceptible to COVID-19.
The conversation and discussion regarding the continuance took up the majority of the 5 hour meeting last night. After about 4 hours, the board finally voted on a motion to continue, and the the motion was denied. Accordingly, the council immediately proceeded to hearing the case. Testimony will continue next week June 10. Embedded below is a video of last night's hearing.