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Editorial - Zoning and America

July 18, 1997

Last week when the Washington County Commissioners were discussing zoning changes on U.S. 40 on the east side of Clear Spring, Commissioner John Shank objected to the proposal to place more restrictive zoning on developer Vincent Groh's land there.

"To me this is just another classic example of the government telling a private property owner what they can do. I don't want the government to tell me what to do. That's why I live in America."

If that speech sounds familiar to long-time readers and county residents, it's because similar arguments were used more than 20 years ago when zoning was first proposed here. Some opponents even compared zoning to communism. But in the decades since, most people have come to realize that the same process that requires them to get a permit for a small storage shed will also scrutinize the plans of any neighbor who decides he wants to build a machine shop in his back yard.

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Because we are no longer on the frontier, with empty acres aplenty for each citizen, somebody's got to mediate land-use differences between neighbors. To allow anyone to do anything they please with their property would mean allowing residents of a residential subdivision to open a slaughterhouse or a motorcycle shop.

But where does the role of government end? John Locke, an English philosopher whose ideas strongly influenced Thomas Jefferson's writing in the Declaration of Independence, said government can justify its existence only if it can protect the rights of the people better than they can by acting alone. The people of Clear Spring have already expressed their opposition to additional development, so government does have a role to play in seeing that their rights are considered when they're in conflict with those of wealthy developer.

Shank is on firmer ground when he says that it's wrong to allow developers to buy land with commercial potential and then change the zoning to limit that potential. It would seem that county government has a role to play in looking after Groh's rights as well.

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