As soon as you hear that a project that will affect your home or business may be in the works, you should get as much information as you can, as soon as possible. Trying to get information out of your local government can be frustrating, but don’t get discouraged. This section gives some ideas of the information you should look for and how to get it.
How to get information
Finding out information about a possible project can often be difficult. It is important to be both polite and persistent. You will have to deal with the same people over and over again, so you want them on your side as much as possible. You should remember that the individuals in administrative positions at the city council or town clerk’s office likely have no personal connection to the project, so don’t take any anger out on them. On the other hand, don’t give up if you run into a dead end.
If you saw a newspaper article about a possible project, it can’t hurt to contact the reporter and ask for more information. If nothing else, the reporter may tell you where to look for more information. The reporter may also be able to provide you with contact information for others in your neighborhood that are affected by the project.
If you are on good terms with anyone in city government, from a member of the city council to someone in the tax division, that person can be helpful in finding out where you need to go for information.
Your city or town planning department may know about development plans for your area. It may also have information about whether your area has been declared “blighted” or a “redevelopment area.” If your municipality has a redevelopment agency, that agency should have copies of studies and other documents.
To get copies of documents from the government, if they are not available from the library or any other easy source, or the project is in very early stages, you can do a Freedom of Information Act request. Freedom of Information Act requests are an excellent way to get information from your local government. Every state has a slightly different law, but they all generally require that the government provide information to its citizens. Two good websites you should check out for freedom of information laws are run by Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (www.rcfp.org/foi.html) and the University of Missouri (web.missouri.edu/~foiwww/citelist.html).
Once a project is in the planning stages, documents are often available at your local library and/or town or city administration building. This is, of course, the easiest way to find things—but remember it’s best to find information as soon as possible, so don’t wait until the planning stages to track down information.
Keep all the documents you receive, including notices and brochures. You will be surprised what you might need to refer back to later.
And take notes. Every time you get information from a representative of the government or a developer, write down the date, time, name of the person to whom you spoke, and what that person said. (You can take notes at the end of this Guide.) You should also keep a comprehensive list of any documents you get.
What information you need
Find out everything that has happened so far. Get copies of all documents. These may include:
- Studies conducted of your area
- Transcripts or minutes of hearings or other meetings about your area
- Reports about whether your area has been designated a “slum area,” “blighted area,” “redevelopment area,” “in need of redevelopment,” or anything similar
- Findings made by a government agency about your area
- Ordinances passed about your area
- Traffic studies or environmental studies about your area
- Development plans or proposals for your area
- Requests for proposals or “RFPs” for development of your area
- Development agreements with a private developer to develop your area
- “Master Plan” that includes your area
- “Vision Plan” or “Vision Statement” for your area
You should also get copies of the statutes governing eminent domain in your state. These are usually available through your state’s website. You can also look on FindLaw (findlaw.com/11stategov/) and follow the links to your state’s statutes. You may also need to look at local ordinances for your city or town. These should be available online or at the municipal or local law library.
Find out the process for challenging the condemnation of your property in court and construct a timeline for legal proceedings. (We’ve also provided space for this at the end of this Guide.) States vary widely on these procedures, and it is easy to miss deadlines. You absolutely must find out what the schedule is in your state. For example, in some states, you must challenge the designation of your area as a “blighted” or “redevelopment” area within 30 days, or you can never do so. In other states, you cannot bring such a challenge until the government actually tries to condemn your property. In some states, you must be in attendance at certain hearings or meetings in order to complain about the results later. In other states, attendance is not necessary. In a few states, you have to go to court to challenge the constitutionality of taking your property long before the property is even taken. In most states, you have to wait until the government tries to take the property. To get answers about the eminent domain process, you can read the statutes yourself, but it is usually a good idea to speak to a local condemnation lawyer. You can always get a consultation and get that person to describe the timeline to expect.
Find out the process for approval of the project. This timeline will be similar to the legal timeline, but it will include more public hearings and meetings. For example, there may be four more hearings before the project is finally approved. That gives you four opportunities to argue to the relevant bodies why the project is a bad idea. It also tells you how much time you have to mount opposition to the project and to condemnations. There may be different timelines for different approvals, so be sure to get all the information. For example, there might be one timeline for zoning, one for environmental review, one for redevelopment area designation, and one for condemnation. Again, this varies a lot by state, so be sure to check out your local procedures. To get this information, you will need to speak either to a local lawyer or to a helpful person in city government.
Freedom Of Information Request
A freedom of information request is very simple. Usually, it should say “Pursuant to [your state’s freedom of information law], I request the following information:” Be very specific about what information you want. For example, you could ask for studies conducted of your area, development agreements and any master plans including your area. (See checklist.) If you live in a large city or are requesting information from the state, it’s often a good idea to call the city or town clerk first to identify the person to whom you should send your Freedom of Information Act request. That will make your request get answered more quickly. In a small town, that probably won’t be necessary. Your request can be sent to the municipality itself or, if you know the agency that has the information, you may be able to send it to the agency directly.