Opposition to zoning builds

A Lee County commissioner warned a Henderson audience Monday evening that zoning represents a serious infringement upon property rights and urged them to consider case by case covenants with developers and land owners as an alternative.

Perhaps 40 Vance residents turned out to the American Legion hall in downtown Henderson to hear Chad Adams, a Lee official who also heads the Center for Local Innovation at the John Locke Foundation.

Adams cited the Lockean belief that property rights equal freedom and said that zoning, which governs land use, can erode such rights.

Houston has never had zoning, Adams observed. “New Orleans has plenty of zoning – didn’t do a lot for them, did it?”

The speaker praised land use plans as potentially useful documents that don’t have the force of law, unlike zoning. But Adams asked the crowd which entity could better plan: the government or business?

Zoning also has the potential to concentrate a great deal of power in a small number of hands, those of the zoning board.

And by expanding government, in the form of additional administrators, zoning has the potential to increase a county’s tax burden, Adams argued.

An undercurrent in the local anti-zoning movement has been the fear that zoning is linked to higher taxes. But the speaker argued that isn’t the case. “There’s no correlation between zoning and property tax rates – up or down,” Adams said.

He also said that zoning isn’t linked to economic development, despite claims by zoning proponents.

Zoning will increase how much it costs to deal with your own property, Adams said. He cited his own experience with his large family farm, where zoning and other regulations have required him to spend thousands of dollars to get a permit to build a new house.

Adams then reviewed the history of the Vance County zoning initiative by citing several Dispatch articles.

“This is the part that really mystifies me,” he said when discussing coverage of the Dec. 5 Vance commissioners’ meeting, at which the county refused to release its draft zoning ordinance. The Lee commissioner argued that the government has no legal rationale for withholding the document.

He contrasted Vance’s approach to zoning to his own county’s effort to create a unified development ordinance. That document evolved through an open process thanks to public input. Draft versions were available for residents to inspect.

“If you don’t have public support, some people are gonna have some short terms in office,” Adams observed.

“You’re gonna lose your job,” a spectator noted loudly.

That might be, Adams said. He then praised Vance Commissioners Wilbur Boyd and Danny Wright for attending the meeting.

Open policy is good policy, Adams stated. Vance should immediately release documents and create a citizen-led effort.

“The public is not the enemy. They’re the boss,” he said.

He then argued that zoning is not a top five or top 10 priority for Vance, citing the local Medicaid budget and surging school construction costs as more critical issues.

“I just question why zoning is so important now,” Adams said. “Why can’t it be halted? Why can’t it be looked at by you guys?”

A viable alternative to zoning, he said, is covenants – agreements between the county and developers or property owners that can set conditions on how land is used or maintained. Covenants are made on a case by case basis and are less sweeping and (at least in theory) more voluntary than zoning.

At that point, about 35 minutes into his presentation, Adams opened the floor to questions and comments. Many seemed to demonstrate confusion over which issues are linked to zoning and which are separate.

The first speaker, for instance, complained that he was getting double-taxed on mobile homes that he owns. Adams said that that was a matter for the tax department and that he wouldn’t arbitrate.

The same man then said something about children at school sharing textbooks.

“These are the kinds of debates that a community needs to have,” Adams said.

The spectator continued by saying that the Board of Education should sell its headquarters, which were purchased from Harriet & Henderson during that textile maker’s bankruptcy proceedings in 2003.

Gilbert Bullock complained about eminent domain in other counties, when government takes over land for certain purposes. He and Adams disagreed over whether zoning was in fact linked to higher taxes.

Bullock then referred to how the U.S. Navy had its battleships docked in a row at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. “You’re doing the same thing to us now,” he said.

“In what way?” Adams asked quizzically.

“You’re giving them Japanese free reign,” Bullock replied.

When someone observed that zoning can snowball, Adams agreed. “Zoning is a living document in any community,” the commissioner said, echoing language Krulik has used.

The downside of such an organic document is that a proposed dozen zoning categories can blossom into something of much greater and much more confusing complexity.

Adams also cautioned that zoning can be used as a weapon, citing a case where a poor woman was forced to spend thousands of dollars to move a mobile home five feet to comply with regulation.

Visitors to Adams’ talk were asked to sign in, but the sheets of paper that were being used appeared to be anti-zoning petitions. Most people in the hall wore round orange anti-zoning stickers that bore the Web address of the organization that prepared the petition, www.FreedomWorks.org.

Contact the writer at mmilliken@hendersondispatch.com.

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