Opposed to zoning law? Consider St. Thomas, Pa.

September 07, 2004

Being free-thinking independent people, Americans usually resist additional government controls - such as land-use planning and zoning - at least until someone does something objectionable with a piece of property.

Thirty years ago a proposal to put a NASCAR-style track in the Beaver Creek area of Washington County sparked a new interest in zoning here.

More recently, a proposal to replace an orchard with a stone quarry and an asphalt and concrete plant in St. Thomas, Pa., renewed citizens' interest in zoning there.

Ironically, a zoning plan passed in 1992 was repealed a few years later, leaving the community with one less weapon to oppose the quarry proposal.


Now Berkeley County, W.Va. is getting its wake-up call on zoning, long opposed there. But without zoning, residents had few tools to oppose the opening of an adult-oriented retail store called "Slightly Sinful" next to the Bunker Hill Elementary School.

Fifty years ago, zoning and land-use planning weren't as necessary because most citizens valued their status in the community as much or more than their business profits. Someone who placed an adult business next door to a school back then would likely have been shunned, or worse.

But now, because citizens can no longer count on neighboring property owners to consider the community's views before making a development decision, something else is needed. That something is zoning.

The dire predictions about the ill effects of zoning have been overblown. Isn't a house likely to be worth more if all of the neighboring homes are restricted to residential use, as opposed to dog kennels, motorcycle repair shops and truck terminals?

All of those businesses fulfill a need, but with land-use planning they can do it without disturbing neighbors' sleep and adversely affecting the value of the surrounding properties.

No, not all zoning questions are easily answered. Is a home-based neighborhood day-care center a plus or a minus? Should the retiree who wants to make a few dollars with a curbside vegetable stand be found in violation of the rules?

Such questions are why appeals boards, made up of local citizens, are a necessary part of the zoning process. Such boards keep zoning from becoming a process so inflexible that it harms the citizens it was designed to help.

Obviously, some zoning ordinances are better than others. We urge the proponents of zoning in Berkeley County to look at what's been done elsewhere, to avoid making the same mistakes.

It's tempting to see one's own area as so unique that borrowing from elsewhere wouldn't work, but that's a temptation that should be resisted.

The Herald-Mail Articles