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Another look at zoning

January 27, 2006

A little more than a decade after it was defeated by the voters, this year citizens of Berkeley County, W.Va., may get to vote on a countywide zoning ordinance again. We urge residents not to reject it without a serious look at the benefits of land-use controls.

The voters defeated zoning by an overwhelming margin in 1994, but the ordinance might have a better chance of passage this time because of a law passed in 2004.

According to Joyce McConnell, a professor at West Virginia University School of Law, the new law gives local governments more flexibility when drawing up ordinances than they had previously.

The first step in the latest version of zoning will be a revision of the county's comprehensive plan, last updated in 1990.

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A comprehensive plan without zoning is essentially a wish list. Without zoning, preservation of the county's resources, including its groundwater, for example, depend a great deal on what the developers want to do.

Once a housing development is completed - and 67 major subdivisions in the county received final plat approval in 2005 - then the taxpayers take over the responsibility of maintaining the services that new residents require, including schools for their children.

It follows that orderly development that is directed to where schools and other services are already available will cost the taxpayers less than sprawl development.

During the debate, citizens will hear that controls will make housing costlier.

No doubt that is true to a certain extent, but it does not follow that the absence of controls will make it cheaper. Developers will build the most expensive homes they can sell, unless they have some incentives to do otherwise.

Such incentives can be built into a zoning ordinance. Then citizens who can't afford a mini-mansion will have some assurance that their needs will be addressed.

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