Managing growth has never been easy
Zoning. It’s one of those words— and concepts — that’s been cussed, spat upon and kicked unkindly to the curb for decades in the mountains. “Don’t anyone tell me what I can do with my own land, by God.”
Well, there’s your own land, but then … the asphalt plant wants to expand on a site right by the pristine creek where you like to fish and families like to play along the shore … the auto parts plant that would have a hundred trucks coming and going each day wants to open just down the road … an out-of-state developer wants to build a huge apartment complex near my neighborhood … and the county wants to put a new landfill cell right next to grandma’s house.
“Why can’t the county or the town stop this?”
Because it doesn’t have zoning ordinances. Or, because it’s all perfectly legal under the zoning ordinances on the books. Who’s better off, the concerned citizen who lives in a no-zoning county or the concerned citizens who lives in a town whose zoning ordinances aren’t designed to stop developers? Choose your poison, right?
In two separate articles in last week’s edition of The Smoky Mountain News, questions arose about zoning in Haywood County and Waynesville. Touchy subject, for sure, but one I suspect we’ll be hearing a lot about over the next few years as explosive growth and development have become the norm rather than the exception. Can it — development and growth — be stopped, encouraged, or controlled? How?
I remember attending meetings in the 1990s when Haywood County held public hearings on a potential county-wide zoning ordinance. It was a hurly-burly affair that gave a newly transplanted newspaper editor a quick study on how people feel about their land, particularly land that’s been in a family for generations. I kid you not, it came close to blows at some of those meetings that were held in the different communities in Haywood. More than one anti-zoning advocate marched into my office bowed up and ready to take on the new editor who was advocating for controls on the rampant development that was happening at that time.
Needless to say, Haywood County backed off the idea. That was almost 30 years ago.
When a question about zoning came up at a recent forum for the Republican candidates for county commission, it was interesting to read the responses. No one expects Haywood to enact county-wide zoning, but that doesn’t mean it can’t take steps to stop or control some kinds of development. There are, in fact, some measures already on the books to do just that.
Commissioner Tommy Long said he favored “natural growth” and that “anything that isn’t natural growth is a freak.” Not sure exactly what that means, but I wonder if the rampant development now occurring in Waynesville started happening in the county if Long would consider that “natural growth?” I suspect a lot of rural residents of the county might not.
Commissioner Jennifer Best also addressed the zoning issue, saying: “I believe zoning is very clear — it removes the rights of the people. It tells you what you can and can’t do with your property.”
Best is right. In its strictest sense, zoning does tell owners what they can and can’t do with their property. But land-use ordinances can also be written broadly to protect the rights of property owners by not allowing certain entities to build next door, above them or along the waterway that fills the aquifer their well water comes from.
There is nuanced land planning and then there’s heavy handed ordinances from which there is no deviation. Waynesville has a comprehensive, very progressive set of zoning ordinances that were hailed as very modern and accommodating when enacted some 20 years ago.
Of course, their ordinances have been updated over the years, but now many residents who want to at least control growth are saying Waynesville’s standards are too lax. Waynesville’s zoning plan embraces mixed uses in almost all areas. By doing that, it does not strip people’s property rights. But it also encourages retail, multi-family housing and even light manufacturing in almost all areas if it was in keeping with the character of the neighborhood. As long a big apartment complexes meet all the standards, they can’t be stopped.
Right now is reminding me of the early 2000s all over again. Before the 2008 recession, residents were clashing over how to control the explosive growth happening all over the mountains. Now, as an onslaught of multi-family apartment complexes and housing developments descends on Waynesville, we are once again fighting about how to preserve the character of this place we call home.
Zoning, for all its negative baggage, is one of the only tools county and town leaders have. Waynesville would have to do some re-writes while the county would have to initiate its own standards. Or perhaps we’ll just stand pat and let the chips fall.
Leave a comment
The examples Mr. McLeod uses are telling. In theory zoning or planning would appear to be a common sense reaction and attempt to manage growth in a way that minimizes deleterious effects while maximizing a community's quality of life. The conceit is that we can do this in some neutral way where the greater community interests are served. In reality all management systems are founded on normative assumptions, i. e. someone's conception of what is good.
Unfortunately zoning has too often been used as a means for the wealthy and powerful to preserve advantage at the expense of the less fortunate and powerful. Part of the rising cost of housing in this country can be traced to zoning systems that fostered and encouraged NIMBYism.
I was an early proponent of land use planning in Jackson County, serving as Smart Growth chair twenty years ago. My participation in these issues goes back as long as Mr. McLeod has been writing about them in SMN. I still believe in planning and land use regulation but I'm wary that too often we ignore the implications of our systems and decisions and delude ourselves into believing that regimens that reinforce our priors are more broadly beneficial and come with fewer negative consequences than they do.
Prominent in Mr. McLeod's examples are multi-family units - apartments - which are one of the few affordable housing options available to many folks. Too often zoning has been used as a means of discriminating by means of race or class. Too often complex zoning ordinances become tools of the privileged to maintain both advantage and profit, Asheville's UDO may be a prime example of this.
I'm not familiar with the specific issues in Haywood County but I suspect they are at least somewhat similar to other areas. Every community needs to plan and whether we like it or not we ultimately need regulations and the bureaucracies that enforce them if we are going to avoid both environmental and community degradation. We should, however, be both clear eyed and honest about the ways advantage can be conferred by such systems. We should be cognizant of the underlying normative assumptions embedded in such systems and take steps to insure we're taking into account the needs of all economic and social strata.
NIMBYism is just as destructive a force as "Don't tell me what to do with my land." Preservation of property values and so-called protection of community values can all too often be a smoke screen for economic discrimination.