New state law allows publishing notices later, holding fewer public hearings

A state law passed this year allows Grand County to forego publishing certain public notices in the local newspaper of record — locally, that is The Times-Independent — and opt for mailed notices sent later than previously required. The county is set to take advantage.

County staffers Mallory Nassau and John Guenther, respectively the associate commission administrator and planning and zoning director, presented the proposed changes to the county commission, which opened a public hearing on the matter Tuesday, July 20.

The state law, Senate Bill 201, allows counties to post notices about various land use applications — including rezone requests, land use code amendments, and requests for variances — through the state’s public notices website.

In passing the law, the state also required the office that runs the state’s noticing website to allow newspapers to request and automatically receive a feed of public notices posted to the site.

Besides posting the notices online rather than sending them directly to the newspaper for publication, the county could also provide shorter notice, in some cases, than it currently does.

For example, public meetings would require only 24-hour notice rather than the 10 days currently required. Public hearings, where residents are provided opportunity to comment on a certain matter, would still require 10 days of advance notice.

The difference between a hearing and meeting is that elected officials may vote on a matter during a meeting while hearings are time only for public input on a matter.

Mailers about public hearings could also go out later under the new rules. The county sends mailed notices about public hearings to properties within 1,000 feet of the property in question. Rather than sending those notices 13 days prior to the hearing, the changes would allow the county to send them 10 days prior.

Nassau and Guenther said that the changes aligned with new allowances the Utah Legislature made for counties this year regarding public notices.

They also said web notifications were more common than notifications in print media; that the lead time for print media notices could mean delays in land use processing; and that controlling the accuracy of print notices was more difficult than digital notifications.

Zane Taylor, the publisher of The Times-Independent, said that the changes constitute a “slow erosion” of the county’s obligations to keep voters updated on proposed changes to local policies. He also said publishing notices through the newspaper’s website was “the most reliable and easiest to access” for residents.

I would caution that we should beware of rushing through changes which may create an adverse effect for some, and that the public deserves the right to timely notice. Weekly publication of print media is more than adequate to preserve timely notice.

Zane Taylor, publisher of The Times-Independent; July ##, 2021

Taylor also said that the newspaper commonly spots errors in public notices that he resolves with advertisers and warned against having digital notices “about our government” published strictly “on a government-run website.”

The proposed changes will return to the county commission’s agenda during its next meeting, which is scheduled for August 3.

No public input on conditional use permits

The commission on Tuesday suspended the same public hearing rules it is currently considering changing. The commission voted to suspend the rules to immediately remove a self-imposed requirement to hold public hearings on conditional use permits.

A conditional use permit caused the Moab City Council headaches from 2014 to 2018, when it finally settled a lawsuit over the denial of a conditional use permit. The permit would have allowed Jeramey and Mary McElhaney to start a bed and breakfast on Arches Drive.

After a virtual loss in the Utah Supreme Court, the city settled the case by providing the McElhaneys the long-denied permit. The council later removed conditional uses from the code, citing misconceptions that elected leaders can deny unpopular permits, as they apparently did in the McElhaney case.

Grand County Attorney Christina Sloan pointed to this precedent — that “public clamor” cannot be considered when deciding on conditional use permits — to support removal of the public hearing requirement for them.

“The county should not waste resources by requiring a public hearing to solicit public comment when that public comment may not legally be considered during the review process for a conditional use permit,” Sloan said.

As for why the county suspended its own rules to quickly push through the change, Sloan said the timing was “critical in order to move a conditional use permit for the American Rocky Mountaineer forward.”

Rocky Mountaineer is a luxury tour company that announced this year it would be establishing a train route between Denver and Moab. The stop Rocky Mountaineer wants to establish in Moab is rumored to be near Moab Giants, in an area Grand County recently rezoned to promote viewshed preservation.

The county commission regularly suspends its public hearing rules, which call for more hearings than state law requires.