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Don't expect omnipotent government

Posted: February 12, 2012 - 1:00am  |  Updated: February 12, 2012 - 5:28am

Stop expecting so much from your government.

If the citizens of this county, this state, this nation could follow that simple rule, we’d all be better off.
Most of us would agree that we shouldn’t expect the federal government to give you money if you don’t work for it. But just as importantly, people should stop demanding that their government take care of things that should be their responsibility.

This conversation started when someone on Facebook worried about apartments being built near Riverwood Plantation.

“I have a huge problem with this,” she wrote. “The fact that more, almost all the community is unaware of this and will not be informed.”

A few details:

In 2005, the developers of Riverwood Plantation brought Phase II of the project to county officials for approval. The 1,500 acres, on both sides of Washington Road, includes all types of development – from commercial sites to apartments. Residents of Riverwood hashed out details with the developer, and county officials signed off on those final plans.

A few things have happened since, including the construction of the big commercial corner with Publix, and the creation of General Wood Parkway. The developer clearly hasn’t been in a big hurry to proceed with the rest of the plans, but when that changes, those plans already are in place – including sites for apartments.

A few years after the Riverwood approval, commissioners developed a distaste for new apartments. They rejected a rezoning on Wheeler Road, turned down expansion of a complex on Washington Road and fought over Marshall Square before imposing a brief moratorium on apartment rezonings.

None of those subsequent changes had any affect on parcels already zoned for apartments. That was sort of the point: Commissioners contended there are enough parcels zoned for apartments already, including those Riverwood sites.

Now: The person worrying about those sites assumes most of her neighbors are “unaware” of the future apartments and “will not be informed.”

If they’re “unaware,” whose responsibility is that? Who is supposed to “inform” them that their home is near a piece of property that one day could be used for something other than a tree farm?

Answer: It is not the government.

If you aren’t “aware” of existing zoning of property near your home, that’s on you. The county spends bajillions of your tax dollars on mapping, even paying a pilot to take aerial photos to put on its Web site. Look it up, for crying out loud.

As for being “informed,” no government is required to keep you updated on how your neighbor is legally using his private property. If you want to know how someone else plans to use his land within the limits of the law, ask him. (He’s also well within his rights to tell you it’s none of your business.)

We’ve come to expect instant access to all manner of information, to the point that we demand to be told, ahead of time, about something that we just might be interested in later.

This issue comes up repeatedly. Remember the land being cleared on Furys Ferry Road behind Forest Creek, and residents there raising hell because “their” trees had been cut down? The private owner had zero obligation to tell them what he was doing with his property, yet county officials were lambasted for not “doing something” about it.

Same with Magnolia Trace. Neighbors blame county commissioners for not “informing” them, but the fact is that the site was zoned for high-density housing 31 years ago. The private owner can use his property any legal way he sees fit as long as it is within that zoning.

And no, the owner doesn’t have to tell a single neighbor about those plans. What’s more, in this case the developer actually did inform adjoining neighbors, and was thanked by having its flyers doodled on and turned into inflammatory handouts.

It comes down to this: We must stop expecting to have a government so powerful that it can dictate private property use and make it everyone’s business what their neighbors do on their own land.

If we keep demanding such authority, one day the government will have it. Welcome to China.

 

(Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. Email barry.paschal@newstimesonline.com, or call 706-863-6165, extension 106. Follow at twitter.com/barrypaschal.)

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Comments (9)

Riverman1

Do Away With All Zoning

Hey, if you want to do away with all zoning as Houston does, I'm all for it. But if we are going to play this silly game that we can only allow apartments in certain areas, I believe we can pretty much zone anyway we want and change zoning designations when we want, where we want...if the people want it. I haven't seen any Fair Housing complaints so far. The politicians threatened that would happen if we didn't allow Mag Trace.

Barry Paschal

Last time to explain this

I've explained this repeatedly and you continue to keep restating the same misinformation, but I'll give it one last go, Riverman.

NONE of the county's updates to the master plan changed any existing property's zoning. None. All it did was set out guidelines for areas where particular zoning classes would or would not be appropriate. In fact, apartments were far down on the list of its concerns; it primarily focused on restricting future commercial zoning to "nodes" around intersections.

At no point has the county ever preemptively targeted a piece of private property and removed the apartment zoning from it, which is what you continue to assert could be done. That would, however, constitute a "taking" of private property under the constitution, and would require compensation to the owner.

It hasn't been done here, ever. And unless we want to bank a pool of money to pay for it, it won't be.

This piece is about the legal use of property within the designated zoning. I support zoning laws because they protect the private property rights of all in a community. They needlessly infringe only when people extrapolate from them powers that the government does not, and should not, have.

Little Lamb

Say What?

Riverman posted:

I haven't seen any Fair Housing complaints so far. The politicians threatened that would happen if we didn't allow Mag Trace.

That statement is not logical. The politicians did say something to the effect that not allowing the Mag. Trace development would make the county vulnerable to complaints and lawsuits over fair housing provisions. But remember, those same politicians did indeed allow the project to move forward. Thus, there is nothing for the fair housing advocates to complain about.

Little Lamb

Preemption

Thanks for explaining it again, Barry. The normal way for a zoning change to occur is for the property owner to petition the county for the change. Then there is public notification, public hearing in the P&Z board and then the public commission meeting. The county does not just go around willy nilly changing the zoning classification on parcels. To do so would bring mixed-up confusion.

But there is a parcel that received special consideration in, I think, 2010. That was the parcel slated to become Mullins Crossing, Phase II.

At the owner's request, it was changed from residential zoning to commercial. Then the recession delayed development. Something fishy happened when the owner inquired about undoing the zoning and taking it back to residential in order to save on property taxes. If I remember correctly, the Planning & Zoning Commission did not approve it, but county attorney Doug Batchelor (remember him?) said that one signature was missing from the original re-zoning petition (the one requesting commercial zoning), making the commission approval null and void. So the zoning reverted back to residential without going through all the hearings and things.

We were told that the county would ensure the error was corrected and re-do the commercial zoning, but to date that has not happened.

What can a citizen do to make this travesty get moving in the right direction?

Riverman1

LL, My Statement

LL, here's what I meant. The county has engaged in practices to limit the number of apartments allowed. There is lots of undeveloped available land that COULD be zoned for apartments, but we have already said we will never allow that zoning to occur. The places where apartments can be built have been decided.

My statement about the Fair Housing Act is some counties over the nation have been taken to court for similar practices. The feds say not allowing more apartment zoning keeps the poor out. So if they haven't said anything about our practices so far, why would they jump up if we looked at all our zoning again and determined high density, subsidized rental housing in that area would be detrimental to the schools and other infrastructure?

I mean we hear ad nausea how apartments created more work for Sheriff Whittle so why not similar reasoning now? If once upon a time we designated only certain areas for apartments, we can certainly do something similar again.

I'm working from distant memory now, but it seems like other areas were zoned originally for apt, but the county later removed some of those areas from apt zoning. There just seems to have been some flexibility about Mag Trace that wasn't considered.

Barry Paschal

That is incorrect

Riverman: No, and no.

1. The county never said property could NEVER be rezoned to allow apartments. It merely designated areas where apartment zoning is preferable, identical to the way it designates where commercial, industrial, residential, etc. zoning is preferable. There is an additional rule that limits the number of apartment units for which rezoning is allowed per year, but it isn't map-specific.
2. You said, "it seems like other areas were zoned originally for apt, but the county later removed some of those areas from apt zoning." False. As I've said before (see above), never has the county preemptively removed apartment zoning from ANY property. ALL it did, in the latest (two years ago) update of the county's master plan, was to reduce the number of areas where a rezoning TO apartments would be acceptable. But even in those areas, a property owner still has the right to request an apartment rezoning, just like any property owner can request a rezoning of any kind.

The county has not taken away any property owner's current zoning for apartments. Period.

Little Lamb

Never Say Never

I would not use the term "never," RM. Just look at it like the stop signs that crossing guards hold up at school crossings. The commission is saying that they don't want to entertain re-zoning petitions for apartments at this time. There certainly could be a time for re-consideration down the road.

And you cannot blame the commissioners for getting the word out. After all, they were played like a used fiddle by the developer of Marshall Square (the man in the Armani suit) when he submitted revised plans to build a much higher density of apartment units on the Marshall property than the commission approved several years earlier. He was trying to pull a fast one over on them.

Then the Marshall "family" threatened to sue the county to get the higher apartment density and the thing got nasty. I don't support having the county buy the land from the Marshalls, but the commission thought it was the safest way out of the impasse.

I hope the next time someone petitions the commission for a re-zoning classification of PUD, alarm bells and sirens go off at the highest levels. It is commonplace for developers to play bait-and-switch games when they are developing shopping centers and apartment complexes, because they don't have to get prior approval for changes made in the field. But when you sign up for PUD zoning, you have to get all your proposed changes approved by the county in advance. The Marshall Square developer in the Armani suit did not want to follow the rules.

Riverman1

Thanks for the Verification

Barry said, "ALL it did, in the latest (two years ago) update of the county's master plan, was to reduce the number of areas where a rezoning TO apartments would be acceptable."

In all seriousness, thanks for clarifying. That's basically what I thought happened. Now you and I disagree on the importance of the reduction of areas that could be apartment zoned, I understand.

Riverman1

Armani Suit

LL, heh, heh, heh. We milked that Armani Suit thing for weeks before.

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