Scott Tibbs
December 8th, 2005

Back to Opinion columns.

"Government should be last, not first."

After attending last night's Board of Zoning Appeals meeting, I am disappointed in the leanings of those in charge of land use policy in county government. The meeting ended on a high note, with Church of the Good Shepherd getting approved by the BZA to build a church. I think it is rather silly that the law requires CGS to build sidewalks, but that is mitigated by the likelihood of county government getting a grant to build a multi-use trail along Endwright Road or through the property. Still, it is not unusual for county government to require property owners to build a sidewalk to nowhere.

I was less pleased with the first two requests that came before the BZA. The Twisted Limb Paperworks and Thackery rezones revealed what I consider to be a broken process. Richard Martin, a "Green Democrat" appointed by Joyce Poling earlier this year over the objections of Poling's fellow Republican Herb Kilmer, is so enamored of following every jot and tittle of zoning laws that he winds up being a disservice to the community.

Martin asked what criteria we can follow to allow variances to existing code, allowing Twisted Limb to have more employees and Thackery to expand into a larger building. As I said during public comment, my inclination would be to automatically approve variance requests were I sitting on the BZA. As a philosophical libertarian, I believe government exists to serve the needs of the people, not the other way around. The burden of proof as to why a variance should not be allowed must be on government. As it stands now, the burden of proof is on the property owner as to why a variance should be allowed.

To answer Martin's dilemma, I offer the following two questions:

  1. Is it legal to allow the variance?
  2. Would allowing the variance cause harm to nearby property owners?
The BZA can refer to the county's esteemed Legal Department for an answer to the first question.

The second question is a lot more sticky, as we saw in the debate over the Thackery property. Nearby property owners believed that expanded truck traffic would result in an unsafe situation and degrade property values. The petitioner's attorney disputed that, saying that not all of the trucks using the street now belong to the owner and the trucks leaving the site now are not full. Furthermore, allowing Thackery to enlarge the business could result in a safer situation once the site plan is submitted and approved by the Planning Department.

Whether or not a variance for the Thackery property should be granted should be based on an objective determination of the facts. Will allowing a variance cause enough harm to the neighbors to justify a continued restriction of the land owner's property rights? This is obviously a highly subjective criteria, but that is the only fair way to make the decision.

I am not at all convinced that there will be enough harm to justify not granting the variance. First of all, nothing will change from the existing use of the property. It will continue to be a glass blowing operation. Had the larger building requested by Thackery been there before the rezone took place, this would not even be an issue. As the petitioner's attorney pointed out, the ordinance deals with change, not with what was on the site to begin with. It is important to note that uses that would qualify as "heavy industrial" are already allowed on Thackery's property.

I found Martin's repeated suggestions that both businesses relocate to another site to be offensive. It is not easy to purchase and relocate to new piece of property. If you have part of a business split between two sites, you have to deal with two payments for property taxes, utilities, and other things. It is simply not Martin's right to make decisions as to where a business can or should locate. Even if these businesses went to sites the county deems "appropriate", moving there could raise difficulties given city government's efforts to prevent expanding sewers in the county.

I support land use regulations, in general. However, the reason to have these regulations and ordinances is to benefit the people, not so elected officials can shape the community the way they deem appropriate. The so-called "master plan" and wishes of planners should be secondary to property rights. As Troubleshooter often says on the forum, "government should be last, not first."