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Hacking our way out of rezoning jungle

November 07, 2004|by George Michael

The Washington County Commissioners were looking down the barrel of gun and ducked. Who could blame them? The total rezoning of Washington County is a massive undertaking. It's a difficult task, fraught with peril.

After several years of planning, meetings, hearings, testimony and debate, the rezoning plan for the rural areas of our county was put on hold last week. The commissioners opted instead to continue the so-called moratorium for another 90 days.

The original excuse for the moratorium was the "drought" of three years ago. However, ever since the moratorium was passed, the county has been running about 30 percent above normal in rainfall patterns. The moratorium has become the backup plan for controlling growth in the county. Not that it seems to be stopping much growth.

The rural rezoning plan has several problems. Solving its massive flaws will not be easy. Here are some of the key problems.

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It is incomprehensible. Few people really understand the details of the plan. Who among ordinary citizens can comprehend it all? Try reading the document. It is very difficult to understand the actual allowances, exemptions, lot sizes, setbacks and requirements which vary from zone to zone.

Not even the County Commissioners fully understand it, and people in planning will give different answers about it. Citizens have spoken at public meetings and it is obvious most of them do not understand the plan.

But even if they do not understand the details, they know something is rotten about it. They know their property, for all practical purposes, is being taken from them, and they are understandably upset.

Many citizens are uninformed about what is going on. The board has not done a good job of explaining the reasons and the details of the plan to its citizens. There is a strong perception that it is being pushed through "under the radar" to dampen resistance to it.

Admittedly, public meetings and hearings have been held and official notices filed, but a good portion of the county still has no clue about what is being done to their land. My guess is that there will be an even bigger backlash to the rezoning plan if it is implemented.

The issue of equity is the heart of the problem. Land is being, in effect, confiscated without just compensation to the landowners.

Finding a way to make up the difference for the loss of value needs to be addressed and not just talked about in theory. Nothing should be passed on rezoning until this issue is resolved. That is why the commissioners voted to extend the moratorium. They have no answers about the equity issue. The solutions that have been suggested each have significant negatives attached to them.

The commissioners, when faced with a big outcry at the public hearing at the community college last fall, appointed a task force to see if the objections being raised could be addressed.

They needed to buy some time. The task force met and submitted recommendations that led to modifications of the original plan, granting modest relief to property owners.

The original plan called for landowners in the new environmental conservation zone to have 20 acres before any lots could be sold, with those in preservation needing at least 30 acres before any lots could be sold.

Owners of smaller properties had no options. Large landowners were handcuffed with rather severe restrictions. All in the name of "planning." And these two new zones account for about half of all of the land in the county, making a huge impact on a lot of people.

The hearings about the plan have revealed that not all citizens are asleep. Several groups such as Citizens to Protect Rights have been well-organized in their opposition to the rezoning. While some of the concerns this group have raised have been addressed, the core issues have not.

Is 90 days enough time? Probably not. The intricacies of the proposed solutions defy quantification. The plan itself is difficult to understand. The opposition is strong. We wait to see if there is a sensible way out of the rezoning jungle.




George Michael is a Big Pool resident who writes for The Herald-Mail.

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