By popular demand - "popular," meaning elected officials accurately interpreting the will of the citizens - Columbia County has tightened rules on businesses in the past few years.
Popular opinion - by "popular opinion" I mean the rumor mill - holds that Columbia County is overly friendly to big business, helping bulldoze trees and homes to make way for more asphalt parking lots.
Though largely incorrect in the past, popular opinion in recent weeks is coming true. A Commission majority, led by Chairman Ron Cross, has become increasingly willing to amend and bend the rules on behalf of business.
In the late 1990s, the county began taking its growth management plan seriously and applied tougher development rules on the Evans Town Center district. Soon Jeff Browning came on board as director of planning, and with a literal reading of the rules irritated a lot of folks who sometimes conveniently forgot to read the rulebooks.
The town center plan birthed new restrictions on signs, while creating tree-protection rules that citizens had long wanted. Order in the midst of high-growth chaos seemed to be a real possibility.
But just as things started to show improvement, recent history shows disturbing signs of an effort to push the pendulum the other way.
After a fight over a shopping center at Furys Ferry and Evans-to-Locks roads, opponents were somewhat relieved that a proposed Kroger wouldn't be as big as developers wanted.
Within days, county officials began proposing changes to the Growth Management Plan that would revise neighborhood commercial nodes in some areas, including the Furys Ferry and Evans-to-Locks intersection. If the changes are made, the Kroger could be far bigger - a back-door approval of what failed up front.
A couple of years ago, Columbia County expanded the town center's tree protection rules to the rest of the county, requiring commercial developers to keep or plant more trees.
Last year, the Jones Auto Group bought Columbia Square and began bringing most of their dealerships to the county.
The county's tree ordinance requires one tree "island" for every 12 parking spaces, or about 40 for the Jones property. Jones argues that the rule doesn't distinguish between customer parking and display parking, and wants fewer trees.
The county compromised, offering to cut the trees to 16. But some commissioners wanted to bend even further - requiring just three.
Neighbors of Gordon Park Speedway were at least partially satisfied when the county set noise limits on the track as a condition.
The reopened track never took off, and a new potential owner in part blamed the failure on the noise restrictions. He wanted the 60-decibel limit raised to 80. For neighbors of the track, this would be like trying to hold a conversation while standing next to a running vacuum cleaner.
Inexplicably, commissioners were preparing to raise the limit to 75 decibels. Fortunately for neighbors, the owner gave up before commissioners caved in.
There's more, like a bank being allowed to violate zoning rules with a bigger sign. But you get the picture; there seems to be a prevailing view on the Columbia County Commission that the rules have become too tough.
In case none of them have noticed, there has been no slowdown in business development in Colum-bia County. The rules obviously aren't scaring anyone off. If anything, the county needs to be tougher, rejecting attempts to make exceptions.
Who knows: Those elected officials might even find themselves popular - by "popular," I mean doing the will of those citizens who elected them.
(Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. E-mail comments to email@example.com.)
The Columbia County News-Times ©2013. All Rights Reserved.