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As Long as We Remember...

January 23, 2008

A Funny Thing Happened on The Way…..

Farrell Keough

A funny thing happened to the Resource Conservation Zoning areas the other day – they got a reprieve from potential damage by the Board of County Commissioners. But, only a reprieve. These zoned areas and the rules surrounding them are still on the altar of political distortion.

What initially brought about the proposed text amendments for these areas was a supposed inequity in the current text. It was posited that these areas allow more development rights than agriculture. The ‘Man in White’, Commissioner John L. “Lennie” Thompson, found this inequity and like so many of his ideas, he propelled this into heated debate.

But, this did not remain Mr. Thompson’s alone. Other members of the Board of County Commissioners had to go along to propel this amendment into a public hearing and vote. And this kind of amendment plays well to the public, so getting on board behind such a change could be viewed as politically expedient.

The rub occurs when those pesky facts starting getting in the way of political expediency. The public hearing on the proposed text amendment took place January 15. This was one of the most impressive groups of people and presentations seen in Winchester Hall in some time.

The comments ranged from pleading with the commissioners on bended knee not to put them into bankruptcy, to others citing actual statistics in these areas showing no significant impact. Still others cited the existing Master Plan and how the text amendment would likely be a contradiction to that document. One individual noted his large farm, which has been in existence for hundreds of years, is completely zoned Resource Conservation.

Development in these areas is on a very small scale. Various numbers were thrown around as to how many actual homes were approved during the last 30 years, but in general, these numbers were very small.

The people who live in these areas did not purchase this land for intensive development. They purchased the land because they love these areas. Many gave testimony of the improvements made to their tracts of land through reforestation, clean up, and consistent work towards conserving these delicate areas.

In short, these areas are being managed very well through existing regulations and the efforts of the people who own this property. Any approved building in these areas must undergo a battery of tests, review, and rigorous engineering requirements. The average lot size is more than twice the allowable. And, as evidenced by the few actual projects, no out-of-hand building is occurring within these areas. So, why all the fuss?

That seems to be more in the realm of politics and playing to the masses than actually protecting delicate areas or rectifying some sort of inequitable development rights. Most of the public hears Resource Conservation and believes we need to tighten down on the evils of development. Little is written of the truth of these areas and much is written on the crisis of losing these lands.

Hence, the discussion by the commissioners on these text amendments became very animated. In fact, it was almost comical in its divisiveness and obscurity.

At first, Commissioner David Gray began with comments and questions that seemed totally out of the realm of both the proposals and reality. One had to wonder if this was yet another document he failed to read.

Then came a cogent and powerful speech by Commissioner Charles Jenkins berating his fellow commissioners for forwarding this proposal. Suggesting this session represents the nadir of the board’s one year history, Mr. Jenkins pointed to the compelling arguments that this change was unnecessary.

The door was opened to amendments on the proposals. Commissioner Kai Hagen, who voiced his concern over the idea of clustering, forwarded a long diatribe and possible amendment which included clustering. Commissioner Hagen’s proposal was a convoluted set of changes and became increasingly difficult to follow.

Upon questioning the legal counsel, County Attorney John Mathias, as to the legitimacy of Hagen’s suggestions, a final skeleton outline was determined and voted down. This was due in large part to Commission President Jan Gardner’s recognition that clustering was a virtually impossible standard; noting only one clustered development had ever been approved.

During this entire process, Commissioner Thompson continued to badger the board into voting for something. He simply wanted them to show him, personally, that they could make a change, whether it benefited the general public or not. Hence, the truth of this amendment finally lifted its ugly head.

This was more about passing a change in the existing zoning than protecting the area or making the rules somehow consistent. Time and again, the opposition to this change proved its case that it was unnecessary. Yet the change would be such a feather in the caps of those elected for change that they had to pursue this course.

It was truly a comedy of errors watching this scenario play out. Recognizing the serious flaws in the proposed text amendments, the commissioners still felt something must be passed to show their legitimacy or play to their larger constituency.

But, this board still needs to be held to account for not simply dropping the entire process, recognizing that the current zoning requirements are working beyond what their original intent desired.

Like so many issues facing other small groups throughout this county, we must learn and understand how these rule changes affect people. While the land owners of areas zoned Resource Conservation do not encompass a huge group, they are still our friends and neighbors. We cannot stand by and let these changes take place without engaging in the truth of their effects.

As the saying goes, first they came for that group and I said nothing. Then they came for this group and I said nothing. Finally, when they came for me, there was no one left to speak on my behalf.

The current text for Resource Conservation Zoning is working very, very well. There is no need what-so-ever to change it. The only purpose this would serve is to make political hay. This is not justification for such a policy change.

Yellow Cab
The Morning News Express with Bob Miller
The Covert Letter

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