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Effects of planning and zoning rules and ordinances can be restrictive and costly

By Tom Glendinning
Posted Thursday, January 30, 2014

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Pittsboro, NC - The planning tools of subdivision and zoning ordinances are complex, detailed and usually of such volume that most people will not try to read or understand them. Their weight and impact are assumed to be proper and necessary, whatever the effect on the territory involved.


• are part of urban and suburban life

• are a type of measure of urban sophistication

• add weight to the merits of a government unit, whether city, township or county

• grant powers over commerce, industry, development, growth and lifestyle

• provides maps of permitted uses, community and development features

• are generally considered a reassurance that unit tastes, growth, community values will be ensured

The characteristics of planning and zoning rules, coupled with inspection standards, are

• local government control

• a long series of rules, restrictions, laws, many interdependent

• complex ordinances requiring experts to interpret, manage, enforce, and render advice to the decision-making body

• typically, an urban toolbox, not rural.

The recent swing toward conservative values has brought a new focus on government rules and controls. By virtue of complexity, planning and zoning rules appear to have avoided detailed analysis. Yet, they are one of the main interfaces between the “common good” and individual property rights. Since the very basis of our government is the God given rights of freedom, of self defense, to enjoy the fruits of one’s labors, and to an economy not dependent on or burdened by government, the protection of those rights is assumed to exist in the rules and ordinances.

The free market is the framework for economic sustenance and growth. During growth, it allows for more jobs, tax revenues, payroll, and expansion of production, like the days of summer.

During retraction, these shrink, just like the days of winter. “Like breathing in and breathing out,” to quote the words of Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady.” These market cycles have the bookmarks of the crashes of 1873, 1893, 1929 and 2008, with various respirations between. No political arguments are entered to keep the line of thought clear.

Inherent in the social contract are controls which act to define behavior for the common good. Cite any philosopher desired, Plato, Aristotle, Rousseau, Voltaire, Locke, on the basic agreement. Planning and zoning express these values by restrictions on place, size, and use. Basically, they provide definitions of what, when, where, and how one may live, work, play and worship. No political analyses are acceptable, since they are refinements of systems, not the basis of them.

Liberal values like controls and do not trust man. Conservatives prefer the lack of controls, trusting man to act under the basic rules of the contract and religious values. Bureaucrats like predictable systems with clear enforcement standards. The result of changes in ownership of a political system is changes in rules and practices. And bureaucrats hold onto systems of rules. Often these systems survive different regimes and grow continuously, becoming more complex. Thus, the inertia of complex rules begets incremental increases and, by necessity of logic, more complexity.

The rules and ordinances have become a bastion of control rarely assaulted by elected officials or appointed boards. These transient figures, elected and appointed, become migrants and spectators to the encoded system, maintained and protected by bureaus and their staff. Rarely, are the printed mandates of our behaviors ever changed, except to attract more complexity.

In the history of Chatham County, economic freedom and property rights have been a foundation which accrued progressive controls. Grants to Quaker farmers were recorded in the 18th century. Farming remained the chief economy until the textile industry developed in the 19th and 20th centuries, bringing opportunity to Siler City and Pittsboro. Few rules existed then except for laws of the land. The decades of the 1970's and 1980's had some regulations and a booming economy. The 1980's saw the first subdivision rules and zoning in eastern townships. No zoning was

desired or needed in the western portion of the county. 1990-2000 saw an increase in rules governing land use. From 2000 to 2010, major planning and zoning regulations were passed, mostly in 2008 and 2010. No replacements were sought in the period from 1970 to 2010 for the failing textile and furniture industries. By 2006, a policy priority of no industry or development was adopted. The recession of 2008 accentuated the lack of growth in this sector of the county economy. With little to no replacement of industry and few job opportunities, Chatham citizens work mostly outside the county.

The effects of planning and zoning rules and ordinances is restrictive and costly. Instead of the original moderate set of rules, there are over eleven hundred pages in the manual. They include ordinances on subdivisions, zoning, lighting, mobile home parks, signs, cell towers, and some miscellaneous rules. The strictest set is zoning, which designates land use in specific areas.

Tax rates ran from high with low values decades ago, to moderate with high values. The in-house appraisal of 2001 was programmed to reach full market value for all properties. Currently, the budget is balanced and growth in value covers increased expenses. The county tax rate is $0.6219 per $100 property value.

Another county, the value of which depends heavily on high value development property, hosts moderate industry, and has a high rate of employment within the county. It has one-half the total tax basis of Chatham and has no zoning at all. Further, it has a tax rate of $0.40 per $100 value. There are subdivision rules and most of the other rules as in the Chatham manual. Additionally, there is a high impact ordinance to control uses which are inconsistent with surrounding neighborhoods, if such an issue needs addressing.

Though experts say that counties and cities are two different regulatory models, the effects of zoning are universal. Cleveland, Ohio has very strict ordinances as well as a board which likes control. The city has not permitted any new major industry in decades. Businesses must endure a battle of wills and have deep financial resources to gain zoning permissions. The city is broke, has little development, hosts one of the worst school systems in the country, and has a high rate of unemployment and welfare recipients.

Conversely, the city of Houston has no zoning ordinance. It has a booming economy, low unemployment, little welfare and a bright outlook for the future. Business is welcome in Houston and holds a respected position in the community. Texas is stealing business and industry from California because California is so highly regulated and taxed.

The obvious question arises whether zoning is required at all. The next question is how much does it cost the county in both revenue and lost opportunity. Since the ordinances are cumulative and add complexity, how can they afford business and economic growth? When a local government, its bureaus and officers, operating under the rules, harm the enjoyment of the fruits of the citizen’s labors, and the reasonable expectation thereof, they are too strenuous and restrictive. Inspection procedures can enforce quality construction and rules other than zoning will work to the common good. These can suffice to keep people employed, create jobs and reasonably protect the community values.

The usual questions arise about pollution, erosion, building quality, watershed protection, and cell towers. All these issues are covered by state and federal laws, regulation and enforcement. The only issue which needs local attention is the impact on neighborhoods. This perceived problem can be addressed by subdivision regulations and a high impact ordinance.

Planning and zoning permit cycles have been improved in Chatham, but they are not ideal. There are more basic changes to make in our regulations and rules. They are not designed to encourage job creation, reasonable use of one’s land and growth of the economy. They are very costly to applicants. These costs and permit cycle times keep regular citizens from starting businesses. Examples of this phenomenon can be cited. Though our planning staff has adapted and is cooperative, small business is too often discouraged. The good of zoning and other regulations is highly questionable, especially in a county which is challenged to provide employment to its residents and increase tax revenue.

After all, ensuring the common good is not the same as harming or impugning the individual.

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Effects of planning and zoning rules and ordinances can be restrictive and costly