Making Tough Land Use Decisions

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I've sat through a lot of zoning hearings during my career including several in recent weeks. I've seen them change over the years and each time I get more concerned about the tone, tenor, and emotionally charged debate that can dominate the discussions.

Signs of protest, disruptive crowds, angry complaints, and name calling have become more prevalent. And we’ve seen that both from those petitioning for a project as well as those opposing a new development. Zoning can be controversial.

Zoning is something that has been around since about the beginning of time. It existed in some form or another tracing its roots all the way back to about 750 BC. Most developed countries have zoning. Every City in the United States, except for Houston, Texas has zoning.

Generally zoning is thought of as a government unit dictating areas where particular land uses are permitted or prohibited; the size and dimensions of land area; and the form and scale of buildings. Zoning was put in place to guide growth and development of a community.

Proponents argue that zoning provides property owners with specific protections from nearby property owners doing something objectionable with their property. Critics argue zoning can interfere with an owner’s right to utilize his/her property in any manner they see fit. Because you are dealing with property rights, it can get personal and emotional.

Plan Commission’s, Boards of Zoning Appeals, and City or County Councils are empowered to make key decisions about zoning in a community. The professional planning staff also plays a key role in advising. My experience has been that decisions by each of those bodies are made after careful review of appropriate zoning guidelines, review of previous plans, inspections of the property, and public debate and deliberation about the merits of a project.

I’ve found the people working in these positions to be hard working honest folks involved because of their love for the community. The positions aren’t lucrative, with each earning just a small stipend to help cover some costs to travel to visit some sites and other incidental costs.

Generally, I would say most zoning hearings result in some general consensus. But not always. Where the decision is not clear, we’re left with a petitioner angry their project won’t proceed as planned or neighbors fuming their concerns didn’t carry more weight in a final decision.

Recently, developers that haven’t got their way have suggested that the system is flawed and should be scrapped. Neighbors that haven’t got their way have suggested that the people making the decisions are where the flaw exists and should be replaced.

The process can be lengthy and can often be one of compromise as developers seek to fit in and be good neighbors. Officials are left carefully weighing the needs of growth and new capital investment versus the needs of those neighbors that might be impacted.

In the end, not all new development and capital investment is good and at the same time not all developers are looking to damage a neighborhood. Plan Commissions, Boards of Zoning Appeals, and City and County Councils need to be a place of civil discussion, honest debate, and candid conversations.

In honor of President’s Day this week, perhaps when we head to our next zoning hearing we should heed the advice of one of our great presidents, George Washington, who said. “Every action done in company ought to be with some sign of respect to those that are present.” That should include those speaking in favor, those in opposition, and those entrusted with key decision making responsibilities.

Jeff Rea is chief executive officer of the South Bend Regional Chamber of Commerce.

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