on November 1, 2007 by in Uncategorized, Comments (0)

To zone or not to zone

WALHALLA — At first they wore badges proclaiming, “Freedom — No zoning.” Now, they are wearing orange hats with an even more succinct message, “No zoning.”

No one is sure exactly how many people in Oconee County are opposed to any form of zoning, but those who are take it personally. The few who have spoken on the record or written letters to local papers make it clear they see any type of land use planning as a threat to their individual property rights.

Proponents, on the other hand, see the lack of zoning in the same light. They fear that without zoning, development interests will build high rises that block out the sun. Others, they suggest, will carve up potentially prime industrial sites into half-acre lots with homes befitting a ’60s hit that bemoaned, “Little boxes on the hillside, Little boxes made of ticky-tacky … little boxes all the same.”

Whether this emotional issue results in a gun-toting showdown such as the one Oconee County encountered a few years ago remains to be seen. Development pressure seems to be bringing converts to the cause of zoning. It may happen, in some form, whether anyone likes it or not.

The man currently at the center of this potential storm is Oconee County Planning Director Art Holbrooks. His position is not enviable.

On one hand, he works for the county and, as such, answers directly to Administrator Dale Surrett and indirectly to the County Council, parties that seem to agree that some form of zoning is needed.

On the other hand, he works for the Planning Commission, an appointed body charged with actually drafting a zoning plan. Individuals on the commission have closely guarded their personal positions on the topic of zoning, but there appears to be a mixed bag of support.

Recently, County Council took the lead by sending an enabling ordinance with overlay zones to the Planning Commission, asking them to expedite action on it. Two planners said they felt the council was moving too fast and the group as a whole voted to meet later, rather than sooner, after debating its November meeting date.

The overlay plan, according to Holbrooks, changes nothing as it relates to the county’s intention to have community-based zoning. The enabling ordinance, as proposed, creates one district of all unincorporated land in the county and that district will have no zoning. Eventually, smaller districts will be created, likely following fire district lines. There will be no zoning in those districts either, unless residents petition for it and then vote to approve it … in each district.

The overlays are not zoning districts. Any districts that are created would lay in under the overlay and any standards adopted in individual districts would apply to that portion of the overlay in that district.

Holbrooks is frustrated that people don’t understand.

“People are distrustful of the zoning process,” he said. “We need to get information out. I’ve found that, once I explain it to people, they generally don’t have a problem.

“Some people are philosophically opposed to any type of zoning and that’s not going to change,” he added, “but I’m not getting many of those calls.”

Rumors, Holbrooks said, are running rampant.

“I had someone call me because they heard the lake overlay was going to regulate the color of walkways down to the water,” he said, shaking his head in disbelief.

In reality, as proposed, the Lake Jocassee and Lake Keowee overlay would create height (65 feet above finished grade), density (four units per acre) and buffer standards within 1,300 feet (one-quarter mile) of the shoreline at full pond. No other standards are being suggested at this time.

And, just as the lake overlay is aimed at protecting the shoreline area against certain forms of development, the industrial overlay created for the I-85 corridor area is designed to create a zone for job creation. However, Holbrooks said the industrial overlay is going to require “clarification” before adoption because of existing residential areas.

“We’re going to have to have four sub-districts in the industrial overlay,” the planning director said, pointing to the actual I-85 frontage, the Fair Play village area, the Commerce Center corridor along Highway 59, and the area south of I-85.

The only standard in the initial plan, if adopted, would limit residential development to one home per five acres. Holbrooks suggests even that standard may not apply to all of the sub-districts. Initially, there will be no standards for industry, but buffers, parking and setbacks may be among future considerations.

“It’s not our intent to apply this to a farmer who wants to sell a lot. The intent is to guard against big developments,” he said, noting that the area is expected to explode when water and sewer become available.

The Fair Play village sub-district, he suggested, may not have any standards initially.

As it relates to the overlays, the primary message Holbrooks is trying to get out is that they do not create zoning. They only create performance standards. And, while the enabling ordinance that is needed to give the overlays credence contains language related to grandfathering and usage, none of that language applies to the overlays and is subject to change as the Planning Commission finalizes work on the enabling ordinance.

“This is a very unorthodox way to go about zoning,” Holbrooks said, adding that it all goes back to the desire to have community-based zoning while protecting some of the areas where land use is already pretty well defined.

Holbrooks said the overlay initiative was given impetus by Councilman George Blanchard’s call to investigate a moratorium to block high-rise, high-density development around the lake. County Administrator Dale Surrett approached Holbrooks about options other than a moratorium and Holbrooks outlined an overlay suggestion, which had surfaced in council discussions months earlier.

Blanchard, in turn, may have been influenced by representatives of Advocates for Quality Development (AQD), a homeowners group that was formed after the first Lake Keowee high-rise plan was announced. AQD president Linda Lovely said her group did considerable research on moratoriums after realizing that 80 waterfront parcels were “candidates” for high-density developments.

“The council obviously determined the urgency and it made sense to do the overlays,” Lovely said.

At recent meetings where orange hats and “Freedom” tags were displayed, several county residents also in attendance wore AQD identification badges.

“If we know there is something on the agenda, we urge our members to come and speak, and we always encourage them to attend to get a better understanding of the issues,” Lovely said.