Mac Young: Groaning about zoning
New York City adopted the first city-wide zoning ordinance in 1916. Since then, nearly every county and city in the United States has passed and actively enforces zoning laws, with few exceptions.
Houston has no zoning laws and holds the title of “America’s Worst Designed City.” The results of lax zoning are obvious to even the most casual visitor. If you don’t believe me, Google: “Pictures of No Zoning in Houston” and see for yourself.
Aside from creating eyesores, lackluster zoning and subpar planning — both urban and rural — can result in long commute times, decreased property values, reduced quality of life, and a whole host of other problems.
Nevada County follows a planning process resulting in a general plan. Since land-use and zoning regulations restrict the rights of owners to use their property in any way they see fit, zoning regulation can be at times controversial. An example of this is when someone wants to build something that isn’t allowed.
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Zoning can be changed, but it is an arduous process that requires worthy reasons for the change. Such decisions should never be a popularity contest.
Zoning is not only designed to guide future development, but also serves to protect the integrity of existing locales. Being able to count on zoning laws in a municipality serves to protect everyone who lives and works there. If you purchase a home next to a vacant lot that is commercially zoned, you should expect that at some point in time you are going to have a new neighbor that you might have a problem with. It might also be the reason why the house you purchased was selling at a discount.
These zoning laws are put into place for a reason, and the sales price of real estate is often enhanced or decreased based on the surrounding zoning. Without significant study and public input, zoning shouldn’t be ignored or changed because some neighbors are hostile to a business plan. How far should land-use regulations go without running into the constitutional prohibition against the taking of private property for public use without just compensation?
Zoning regulation should not be influenced by the likability of a potential occupant. This is called discrimination.
This long discussion on zoning hopefully sheds some light on the recent Dollar General discourse that has been taking place in Nevada County since 2014. The opponents of Dollar General base their arguments almost entirely on the nature of the proposed occupant. However, if Trader Joe’s were to open a retail operation on these same lots — environmental impacts become much less controversial and approvals much easier from a regulatory standpoint — based on the nature of the proposed occupant. That is simply against the law.
The rationale behind good zoning is that it promotes the public good for the entire community in accordance with a comprehensive general plan. Sales and property tax generation, for example, is a public good that benefits the entire community. The vocal opposition by concerned citizens in the middle of a working day — known as public input — does not necessarily represent the entire age and need range of the existing locale. Many in Alta Sierra and Penn Valley could absolutely benefit from the convenience of a nearby store selling replenishable brand-name items at a 10-20 percent discount to other existing stores in Nevada County.
The claim that alternatives exist in these underserved areas that Dollar General intends to supply are simply untrue. The prices in these areas are high, the quality at times less than average, and the selections abridged. The argument that the Dollar General does not “fit” with the existing neighborhood is problematic as well — unless size and shape are addressed in zoning laws, they are not fair game.
The supervisors who voted “yes” to approve Dollar General were obeying the law, honoring the general plan, protecting property rights, and were promoting the public benefit of the entire community, many of whom are currently underserved.
As Supervisor Scofield said at the Board of Supervisors hearing on Feb. 28, “I know you are going to be mad at me, but I am going to vote in favor of this because it is the right thing to do.”
It is impressive when our elected representatives vote for the right thing for the right reason.
Mac Young, who lives in Nevada County, is a member of The Union Editorial Board. His views are his own and do not represent the views of The Union or its editorial board members. Contact him at EditBoard@TheUnion.com.
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