Nothing stirs up basic human emotions as much as a plan to adopt zoning in an area that has never had zoning. That is why emotions are being stirred all over the southeastern United States as suburbia creeps outward like kudzu into rural counties that never felt the need to address the issue of zoning.
While on vacation in the mountains of western North Carolina, I noticed red and white placards proclaiming “No Zoning” at more than a few intersections in a rural county not far from an urban area. A reading of the local newspaper quickly revealed that the local board of supervisors was about to vote on whether to implement countywide zoning. The editorial page revealed the range of emotion. The editors opined rather meekly that zoning was needed to control growth and was the right thing to do. Every one of the letters to the editor railed against it, most writers taking the position that freedom from zoning was a God-given right. I don’t know how the supervisors’ vote came out, but I suspect that some political careers were changed in the process.
Zoning is a method of defining how land may be used and is done in accordance with a master land use plan for a county. Many Mississippi counties are in the process of developing a master land use plan. The closer the county is to an urban area often dictates how quickly the process of planning goes along. That is because in such counties changes in land use are occurring more rapidly than in their more rural counterparts. Folks have a way of seeing the need for zoning when there is an imminent and obvious change in land use. When an automated hog farm is planned for the property upwind of Farmer Jones, there is a sudden, keen interest in land use issues.
When Farmer Jones hasn’t seen a change in land use in 30 years, it’s hard to motivate Farmer Jones about the benefit of land use planning.
The arguments for zoning are that without planned and controlled land use a county will probably become a hodgepodge of property uses and have lower property values. Consequently, the county will have a lower tax base. Professional planners are usually the ones making this argument based on education and experience.
The arguments against zoning tend to be more emotional and relate to one’s right to use his or her property without government interference. A property owner should be able to do what he wants to with his property as long as it doesn’t interfere with his neighbor. There, of course, is the rub.
Ironically, some of the highest property values are achieved when there is the most limitation on land use. Subdivisions that have the strictest covenants usually have the highest values.
In the final analysis I suspect that what is really involved in county zoning issues is much more basic than the pros and cons of controlled land use. Rural property owners, who usually own land by the acre rather than the square foot, feel that their way of life is being encroached on. Zoning is just more evidence that the county is changing, maybe for better or maybe for worse. Farmer Jones was one of 10,000 residents only 10 years ago. Today, the people are coming. He is one of only 30,000 residents. He might own 500 acres, but he still has only one vote. That new neighborhood down the road is also 500 acres, but there are 500 voters there now. Those 500 property owners want to protect their property values too.
Countywide zoning is coming. The challenge is to balance the process in such a way that all property owners benefit.
Phil Hardwick’s column appears regularly in the Mississippi Business Journal. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.