When presenting an application before a local zoning hearing board, I believe that it is decidedly more art than science. Although every lawyer presenting a case should be sufficiently familiar with the legal principles involved, it is more important that the lawyer and applicant work on techniques to persuade people, rather than sophisticated legal issues. The zoning hearing board, through body language and mannerisms, will let you know instantly what statements they find to be persuasive and which ones are not persuasive. It is important to check with the zoning officer ahead of time, to make sure you are fully familiar with all the history in that particular neighborhood, so you know what hot buttons to avoid in your presentation. It is also important for the client to reach out to neighbors ahead of time to try to alleviate misinformation given to the neighbors and to gain a better understanding of their issues. The more that can be resolved outside of the zoning hearing process, the more likely the applicant will win before the zoning hearing board. Just like juries in a normal courtroom, zoning hearing board members are generally not as concerned with the law as they are with the impact on the community. Rather than telling a zoning hearing board that they must grant something, I prefer to convince a zoning hearing board that granting the relief will result in a better project and something that will be advantageous for the township. This process may involve some minor compromises during the hearing, but in the long run, it is much faster and much cheaper than litigating the case through the judicial system. An important decision must be made before the hearing is started and that is whether the client intends to appeal, in which event, you simply build a record and deal with legal principles. If the client does not want to appeal, then it becomes more art than science, making it faster and cheaper for the client. One must also understand that the residents in the audience are the neighbors of the members on the zoning hearing board that will be ruling on your case. It is important to at least pretend that you are genuinely interested in the input from the neighbors, although more often than not, the input from the neighbors is not helpful. Both attorneys and clients should keep in mind that zoning hearing board members generally will vote for what they think is a good project and if they believe the project is bad, seldom will a consideration of the law be persuasive.
In conclusion, presenting a zoning case is usually more art than science.