Why Zoning Matters

ZoningJurisdictionMapsm.jpgOur new members of the Chatham County Board of Commissioners (BOC) are committed to tackling land-use planning issues and implementing public policies that will protect natural resources, preserve agricultural heritage and rural traditions, and protect our property values.

But it’s not going to be easy! There is a strong undercurrent of resistance seeking to undermine these initiatives. This scenario is disconcertingly similar to what happened the last time progressives had the majority in Chatham County, when a loud conservative opposition used fear and misinformation to unseat that BOC majority, and to halt and even reverse their policies.

The narrative used by this opposition is much the same, pitting eastern Chatham against western, and suggesting that elite northeast Chatham liberals are ignoring the will of the majority of the people. The ideology adheres to a narrow definition of what it means to own real property, and a steadfast belief that one’s use and capitalization of property should be unfettered and unregulated, regardless of impacts on the greater community. Land-use planning and zoning are regarded as a taking of rights rather then a regulatory means of protecting the rights of the greater community from harmful or incompatible land uses.

Recent concerns over a shooting range and proposed quarries in unzoned areas of the county have emphasized the need for countywide zoning. Neighboring property owners were appalled to learn that there is no official recourse for regulating land uses that threaten a community’s quality of life, as well as property values. Development pressures from adjacent urbanizing areas will no doubt bring other such projects, and without zoning, there could be many more shooting range scenarios in our future. This is not to say that shooting ranges are inherently bad; the point is that the location of operations that significantly impact adjoining landowners and neighbors should be carefully considered. Is there a place for them in Chatham County? Maybe, if there is a market for them and if they can be safely and appropriately located. With zoning in place, a shooting range operator would have to petition the Board of Commissioners for a rezoning. Before granting a rezoning, a public hearing would provide neighbors with an opportunity to voice their opinions. Otherwise, adjoining neighbors would have no such opportunity, and would be forced to accept an enterprise that significantly and negatively alters their quality of life.

Now substitute Coal Ash Dump or Holding Pond for Fracking waste water for Shooting Range.

OPEN ZONINGjordanlakesunset.jpg

Reacting to these concerns toward the end of their term, the previous BOC’s conservative majority reluctantly considered the implementation of a weak measure called open-use zoning, which would restrict some land uses without going so far as to delineate where different types of land uses should occur. Under open-use zoning, currently unzoned land could be used for a broad array of residential and commercial uses, except for a limited list of uses.

Examples of land uses that might appear on such a list are concrete plants, landfills, chip mills, and mining operations. All other land uses that do not appear on the list would be allowed. This approach offers no protection against urban sprawl and other alterations to landscape and community. Such a list might easily fail to anticipate all uses that might have negative impacts.

It is unclear whether even a weak form of protection would have been adopted by the previous BOC majority, had they prevailed in the November election. But the newly elected BOC is inclined toward implementing a bolder plan to protect existent uses, agriculture, and the natural environment. This plan involves two important steps:

  • First, implementing an interim zoning that exempts agriculture and related agricultural businesses.
  • Second, drafting and adopting an updated comprehensive land-use plan. Both of these processes would require significant public input prior to finalization and implementation.

Why should you care?

It is likely that you chose to live in your current location because you value a rural way of life and community. You are a farmer, or a gardener, you keep livestock and pets, or you just enjoy a relatively natural ecology of flora and fauna. You no doubt have a considerable investment in your property. You probably assume that your neighborhood will become more populated in future years – certainly, it already has – but you hope that your chosen way of life will not essentially change. You assume that others who acquire land in your community will value many of the same things you do. And you imagine that if someone were to use nearby land for some purpose that would significantly alter the environment you currently enjoy and even devalue your property – say with significant light or noise pollution – you and your neighbors would have some say in the matter. Currently, you don’t.

Residential, commercial, and industrial development will occur and have a place in our county. We will continue to grow. But good land-use planning and zoning prescribes where different uses of land are appropriate, logical, and sustainable. Good planning respects and nurtures existing agriculture, community, and natural resources, but allows for commercial and industrial development in designated areas.

bynumdam.jpgThe arguments from “property rights” advocates

There is organized and very vocal opposition to land-use planning in Chatham County, led by former Commissioner Brian Bock, who has recently been appointed to the county Planning Board. Their argument is that big government (specifically, the current progressive majority county Board of Commissioners) wants to dictate how landowners can use their property. They claim that the BOC wants you to give up your independence and conform to “group values.” They say that “community standards” and zoning are “assaults on the freedom of every productive citizen.” They claim that your concern for your “quality of life” is the same as imposing your values on other people. Apparently they do not appreciate the concept of land stewardship for future generations.
Ironically, they decry the idea of being dictated to by big government, while they feel entitled to dictate their own view of property rights to those who advocate for planning. They ignore the fact that citizens who support land-use planning and zoning have property rights, too.

The opposition further argues that if property owners want a say in how a community grows and develops, they must purchase all potentially affected property. In other words, if you can’t afford to amass large quantities of land to encapsulate and shelter your way of life, your opinion doesn’t matter.

Brian Bock has instructed his followers to “…ask them [county commissioners] to slow down and listen to the people that actually live in the affected areas.” Ironicaly Brian Bock himself has chosen to live in one of the most regulated and prescribed-use developments in Chatham County: Briar Chapel. Presumably, he likes the “quality of life” there.
Join us in voicing your own opinion on the matter of how Chatham should grow. The Commissioners who are thinking and planning for our future need our support. They need to hear from you. Citizen input empowers the BOC. If you believe that planning is one way to preserve and nurture the way of life you enjoy and love, now is the time to let your commissioners know. An opportunity for progress exists, but in less than two years, the current progressive majority could be overturned. The time to act is now.

What can you do?

Don’t know what to say? Hear are Zoning Talking Points


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