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If this article was titled "Planning and Zoning," you wouldn't have read this far. But please continue — it will be worth your time.

If you are reading this, there's a good chance you may have also read a recent headline proclaiming, "Canton May Scrap Planning Commission." When the article is hidden behind a paywall, people understandably react to the headline. While planning and zoning are not titillating topics, they are a function of city government that impacts every citizen.

Every parcel of land in Canton has a list of ways the owner can use it. Owning property is like having a bundle of sticks — some sticks are not in your bundle. The zoning designation is one of those sticks, which is why your neighbor can't just decide to turn his/her lot into a landfill. If a landowner wants to change the way the property is zoned, so it can be used for a specific purpose, he/she must submit a request to change the zoning designation.

Previously, this request came to a board or commission made up of citizens appointed by the city council. The public would have an opportunity to speak at a hearing in front of the planning commission. After the hearing, the planning commission would review the request, make suggestions, and offer a recommendation to approve or deny it. A second public hearing would occur before the city council's vote to approve or deny the landowner's request.

This process is sometimes problematic because the public usually finds out about zoning requests from the media, but the media's coverage often occurs after the second public hearing. Due to Georgia law, the council cannot accept any more testimony from the public after the second public hearing. Also, even if a resident spoke at the first hearing, the project may change before or after the second hearing, and the resident may not be aware.

In response to these concerns, the City of Canton decided to develop a new process that eliminates the step of presenting to the planning and zoning board, but it does retain the notice requirements the public is accustomed to seeing such as the yellow "notice" posters around the property and notifications to neighboring property owners. The process still takes three months, but the public will now have more opportunity for input.

Under the new process, landowners or developers submit their plans to the City. Before the plans can move forward, they must advertise the proposal, hold a public informational meeting, and keep meeting minutes. Then, the request will come to the city council as an "informational item" during a regularly scheduled meeting, which should get the info out to the public via the local media. The expectation is that this will better notify citizens about these requests.

During the weeks between the "informational" council meeting and the official public hearing, the developer, council, staff, and public have an opportunity to revise the request. The official public hearing would allow residents to speak for or against it. At the following city council meeting, the council may vote to approve or deny the request.

Under the new plan, the public has three opportunities to be heard instead of two. Also, concerned residents can easily track the project and any changes, as it progresses. If the landowner or developer meets with any councilmembers after the informational meeting, a record of that meeting will memorialize the discussion. This adds an additional layer of transparency to the process.

When it considers a plan of action, the city council relies on input from the public. This improved process gives residents more agency and opportunity to know about and influence how property is used in Canton. 

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