Let’s not go too far

The Covington News - - OPINION - PHILIP JOHN­SON GUEST COLUM­NIST Philip A. John­son is a na­tive of New­ton County and has prac­ticed law lo­cally for 40 years.

Let me be­gin by say­ing that I re­gard Randy Vin­son as in­tel­li­gent, ar­tic­u­late, in­sight­ful and a sincerely good per­son, but I never for­get Randy is a plan­ner with one con­cept of how the world should be planned.

The re­ally im­por­tant is­sue which this county now faces is not about Randy or me. It is about which path the county will choose. The path the non-gov­ern­men­tal think tank, the cen­ter, would have us em­brace is a com­pre­hen­sive new zon­ing plan au­thored by a paid con­sul­tant whose plan­ning cre­den­tials come from a sub­urb of one mil­lion people with an aver­age in­come of over twice that of New­ton County, 15 miles from down­town Wash­ing­ton D.C. They call it the 2050 Plan.

The pro­po­nents of the 2050 Plan have done a stel­lar job of mar­ket­ing the name brand of the 2050 Plan, but have been slow to re­lease to the county com­mis­sion­ers, the city coun­cil mem­bers or the pub­lic the specifics of the pro­posal which will have the great­est im­pact on the in­di­vid­ual cit­i­zens of our county of any lo­cal law of my life­time, and that is nei­ther short nor hy­per­bole.

The 2050 Base­line Or­di­nance, a doc­u­ment of 100 pages, was just two weeks ago re­leased to the of­fi­cials of the lo­cal gov­ern­ments ex­pected to pass it. The Cen­ter timetable called for pas­sage in De­cem­ber, but as ques­tions have been raised about the plan, pro­po­nents have be­gun to push for more rapid pas­sage.

The plan cre­ates two new zon­ing districts cov­er­ing most of East­ern New­ton County. The ru­ral district com­pris­ing 25 per­cent of the county would have a min­i­mum lot size of 10 acres and the con­ser­va­tion district com­pris­ing 37 per­cent a min­i­mum lot size of 20 acres. Stop and think about that for just a mo- ment. Nearly 62 per­cent of the county would have a min­i­mum lot size of 10 acres or 20 acres. Even Vin­son had to ac­knowl­edge that this was per­haps a “bridge too far.”

And don’t think this af­fects only large landown­ers be­cause it does not. If you own 15 acres and you have two chil­dren you would like to give 5 acres each so they could build homes, you can’t.

They will tell you that ren­der­ing your land vir­tu­ally worth­less by only al­low­ing you to build one house per 20 acres is off­set be­cause you can sell what are called Trans­fer­able De­vel­op­ment Rights to de­vel­op­ers who want to build in Western New­ton County or Cov­ing­ton or the Com­pact Com­mu­ni­ties that are ex­empted from the 10 and 20 acre min­i­mum lot size re­stric­tions. We don’t know if there will even be a mar­ket for the TDRs since we don’t know if de­vel­op­ers will want to build with a higher den­sity in the re­ceiv­ing ar­eas, as they are called, than that al­ready al­lowed un­der the or­di­nance. And even if a de­vel­oper does want to ex­ceed the base den­sity, the or­di­nance al­lows the de­vel­oper to pay the county a penalty and not have to buy the TDRs from the landowner on the open mar­ket.

This or­di­nance even tells you how much win­dow space you can have on the front of your house, the per­cent­age re­flec­tiv­ity those win­dows must have,

Ac­cept­ing this or­di­nance as writ­ten by the cen­ter and its con­sul­tant with­out in­ves­ti­gat­ing what the or­di­nance ac­tu­ally says is like let­ting the fox in­stall the se­cu­rity alarm for the hen­house.

the build­ing ma­te­ri­als the house must be con­structed of and the num­ber of col­ors you can use.

While it is my per­sonal be­lief that the Base­line Or­di­nance as now drafted would be an enor­mous case of govern­ment over­reach, I don’t ex­pect the com­mis­sion­ers and coun­cil per­sons to take my word for it. I im­plore them to read the en­tire Base­line Or­di­nance for them­selves. The goal of the plan is ad­mirable, but the devil is in the de­tails. Ac­cept­ing this or­di­nance as writ­ten by the cen­ter and its con­sul­tant with­out in­ves­ti­gat­ing what the or­di­nance ac­tu­ally says is like let­ting the fox in­stall the se­cu­rity alarm for the hen­house.

As cit­i­zens we should en­cour­age our elected of­fi­cials to slow down this process to al­low them to in­de­pen­dently re­view the or­di­nance. We should in­sist on a thor­ough and sift­ing de­bate among the people who put this or­di­nance to­gether and the property own­ers who are most se­verely im­pacted.

We should ask, “Do we re­ally want a sys­tem where lo­cal govern­ment picks the win­ners and the losers in­stead of al­low­ing the mar­ket to do so?” With 62 per­cent of the county land area frozen in its cur­rent state and re­moved from the pool of avail­able land the mar­ket will push the cost of the avail­able build­ing lots up. At the same time the dra­co­nian de­mands of the or­di­nance will push the cost of con­struc­tion up. Thus by driv­ing up the price of hous­ing, this Or­di­nance seeks not only to pick the win­ners and losers, but also to choose the spec­ta­tors.

Fi­nally, once the Board of Com­mis­sion­ers have ad­dressed the glar­ing is­sues in the or­di­nance, this mat­ter should be put be­fore the pub­lic in the form of a ref­er­en­dum held in con­junc­tion with the 2016 pres­i­den­tial gen­eral elec­tion when there will be a max­i­mum num­ber of vot­ers. We vote on all al­co­hol laws and bond is­sues, and all the al­co­hol changes and bond is­sues of the last 30 years com­bined pale in com­par­i­son to the im­pact of this plan.

This is much more than just a new zon­ing or­di­nance. This is an enor­mous ex­per­i­ment in so­cial en­gi­neer­ing with the 100,000 res­i­dents of New­ton County, their property rights and the fu­ture of our county act­ing as the test sub­jects. New­ton County is not by any met­ric sim­i­lar to the Wash­ing­ton D.C. sub­urb model the xen­ter and its paid con­sul­tant would have us bet the farm (and the house and our fu­ture) on.

We all want to avoid the ex­cesses of the early 2000’s as re­flected in the ag­gres­sive de­vel­op­ment in Western New­ton County, but we need to make sure we don’t go too far to the other ex­treme. Bal­ance and mod­er­a­tion should be our touch­stones. We must not aban­don our property rights to se­cure a zon­ing plan which may well not fit our county any­way. Let’s at least have a de­bate over the 2050 Base­line Or­di­nance be­fore us now.

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