Virtual Hearings: The New Norm

29 April, 2020

Updated on October 23, 2020

How to Prepare for Success

October 2020 Update: While an increasing number of jurisdictions are resuming public hearings, it’s not always “business as usual.” Some jurisdictions have allowed only applicants to attend in-person hearings, while the public remained connected through Zoom. In regions like New York, where we are seeing a gradual return to in-person hearings, the vast majority are still taking place remotely. For the imminent future, Bohler’s professionals expect virtual hearings to continue playing a critical role in the approval process.


Jurisdictions across the nation are going virtual with their public hearing process to keep land development projects moving forward. It’s a new and different way of presenting projects for approval. Development teams can better adapt by adjusting the way they prepare for their presentation.

Our team has helped both developers and jurisdictions transition to this new process. In testifying virtually at land use hearings in many jurisdictions, our team has collected best practices from across our footprint. Here are ways your consultant can prepare you, the jurisdiction, and the team to help virtual hearings run more smoothly.

Preparing the Jurisdiction

  • Address their concerns ahead of time. A pre-application meeting with the jurisdiction can help flush out concerns and find workable design solutions. More crucial now than ever, this practice can minimize surprises when your project is presented to the board, contributing to a more streamlined hearing.
  • Increase communication with jurisdictional staff who are attending the hearing. Determine who will run the hearing and work to bring that individual up to speed on your project details, including potential concerns, how they were addressed, and why. Sending all documents, plans, and reports to the jurisdiction well in advance provides jurisdictional staff with additional time to review and ask questions prior to the hearing.
  • Establish guidelines to keep the hearing on track. Know the jurisdiction’s plan for conducting the meeting, including the order in which people will speak and how the public’s questions will be addressed. Bohler has helped establish an agenda for several jurisdictions seeking guidance.

A best practice we have seen is pre-hearing practice runs. For a recent hearing in West Caldwell, NJ, the town held a practice session with all board members, ensuring each was familiar with the process and knew how to interact during the meeting. The town secretary managed the community by asking each member as they logged in if they had questions, and maintained an organized list. This kept the hearing on track.

Preparing the Team

  • Proactively coordinate with the civics. To address Public concerns, Bohler’s teams have increased virtual pre-coordination efforts with local civic groups. Understand the Public’s concerns and work to find solutions, or even obtain a letter of support to submit with the application.
  • Ask your land use attorney to keep the meeting moving. In a virtual setting, it can be more difficult to subdue repeat questions from the Public. Engage an experienced attorney who will be responsible for keeping the presentation on track.
  • Make sure everyone knows what to expect. This is especially important if it is a team member’s first virtual hearing. The team should be prepared for how the meeting will be conducted and be familiar with simple best practices for professional video conferences.
  • Establish a way for the team to communicate during the hearing. Without the ability to converse during the presentation, the team will need an efficient and effective way to communicate that can’t be seen by others on screen. A best practice our teams rely on is setting up a team text chain prior to the hearing so the entire team can communicate throughout the presentation.

Consultant Preparation

  • Keep renderings simple. Exhibits are easier to see in a virtual setting; they are zoomed in on everyone’s screen instead of being displayed on a board at the front of a large room. This can often invite more questions and critique than in a non-virtual setting.

For a recent hearing in Upstate, NY, Bohler’s team simplified their exhibit to show only colors, eliminating text and detail. This helped to keep the audience’s attention focused on the presenter.

  • Set up for success. Here’s a checklist Bohler Principal Brad Bohler follows to prepare for his testimony:

    • Check internet connection strength
    • Log-in to the meeting early
    • Close email and other programs that have alert notifications
    • Be deliberate with testimony – speak slower than normal and pause to allow for questions.

For now, virtual hearings are part of our “new norm.” Though some jurisdictions are more sophisticated than others with their processes and technical capabilities, there are things all applicants and their consultants can do to better prepare for a remote presentation. Following these best practices for team communication and preparation is key to minimizing surprises and helping the hearing run smoothly.

For more information on preparing for a successful virtual hearing, contact our specialists. We are preparing for and successfully executing virtual hearings throughout our footprint, helping our clients maintain momentum.

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