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Why Chatham County should abandon all zoning laws

By James A. McGurk
Posted Monday, December 20, 2004

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The battle between pro-development forces and those who wish to retain the rural character of Chatham County has raged back and forth over the past two years, with both sides claiming small victories. For the pro-growth folks, the 2002 election of Chatham County Commissioner Bunkey 'Silk Hope' Morgan was perhaps the biggest, as his slim election win over slow-growth advocate Gary 'Preacher Man' Phillips virtually guaranteed the approval of several new developments and zoning changes. In fact, since Mr. Morgan has been elected to the Board, not a single major rezoning request has been denied. Now that's progress.

The government should not stand in the way of the free market.

On the other side of the fence, the Chatham Coalition and Chatham Citizens for Effective Communities used a countywide grassroots effort to support newly elected commissioners Patrick Barnes and Mike Cross, who both have a history of working in the best interest of local residents. Cross is quick to point out, however, that while he enjoys the support from the Coalition, he is his own man, and will listen to both sides of all proposals. He also is sensitive to the needs of small business owners, as he runs his own sign business. Barnes is simarly interested in promoting responsible new business in Chatham County. But do we really need all this overboard respect for the people that actually live here in Chatham? No, I say.

Besides, where has all this longwinded bickering gotten us? We just have more meetings now to make it look good. Everything is still being approved despite enormous public outcry against much of the proposed new development. Our Planning Board members are taking private tours of various development projects throughout the state - courtesy of those who seek to develop Chatham County. The majority of them don't even read many of the proposals, as documented in the public hearings on Briar Chapel. The staff of the Planning Board has also now been planted with enough pro-growth seeds that virtually every project proposed is somehow passing all of the five findings in the county's Land Use Plan. Great news!

Overall, we should just trust the developers to have our best interest at heart and let the market dictate our future. The smug lawyer from Newland said our traffic situation may be even better than it is now with all this great new construction! I can't believe they are so kind and really want to help us out like that without asking for anything substantial in return. They had some really pretty pictures in their presentation too. Some local neighbors say the entire process is now a giant dog and pony show resulting in one thing in the end - approval of your project no matter what the residents ultimately most affected by it think. To this I say - who asked them anyway? We could even be lucky enough to get another Walmart.

I propose that we simply erase all zoning laws that currently exist in Chatham County and do away with the entire conditional-use permit process. Now that would be a truly free market! It would save everyone a lot of time and money and provide the same result. What are zoning laws anyway, but a roadblock in the way of buidling the future. There are still plenty of areas left in Chatham without pavement on them and without these pesky zoning laws, developers would be free to build wherever and however they wish to build. As our local sage Barrett Powell pointed out, constructing houses one on top of the other has certain built-in advantages such as "...fewer bus stops and gas to pickup the same number of students than if they were sprinkled throughout the county, and fewer patrol cars to patrol the same number of houses." Similarly, if two new houses that were on fire were right next to eachother instead of miles apart, we would only need one fire truck.

The government should not stand in the way of the free market and landowners should be free to build whatever they want to build on their land. Why stop with a few strip malls? Think of all the skyscrapers and factories we could build in this area and what kind of tax revenue that development might create. It's foolish to worry about incredible infrastructure debts that may or may not occur when we need new jobs now. Zoning laws are a waste of taxpayer money because they hinder business profits. It's really the current residents that are greedy, not the developers. "Just because we want to enjoy the rural character of the County does not give us the right to force anyone to suffer because of those selfish desires," as Mr. Powell also points out. After all you can only take but so many breathtaking fields of wildflowers.

As John Hood from the John Locke Foundation points out in his article Truly Justified or Merely Plausible?, you can "invent a plausible-sounding rationale for many regulations. But as a whole, they are excessive, costly, and counterproductive." We certainly do not need the "police power" of government to protect public health and safety of the residents of Chatham.

Perhaps we should also completely eliminate the Land Use Plan, as it was written by some folks with borderline communist tendencies and does not help our businesses grow. Prescriptive, centralized plans that attempt to determine the detailed outcome of community form and function should be avoided. Such "comprehensive" plans interfere with the dynamic, adaptive, and evolutionary nature of neighborhoods and cities. Densities and land uses should be market driven, not plan driven. We should also get rid of the watershed rules, as they also stand in the way of unchecked growth.

In conclusion, why should the people who live here now have all the rights? What makes them so much better than out of state developers and relocated real estate agents? The rights of present residents should not supersede those of future residents. Zoning laws are a waste of time and money and should be eliminated. Perhaps the highly centralized Planning Board should be eliminated as well. We need to stop wasting our resources debating the inevitable outcome of more development and simply start cashing the checks. We can worry about the future later.

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