Editorial: Put land use on agenda

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Now that Arnold Chamberlain and Chad Mitchell are assured a year as chairman and vice chairman of the Rowan County Board of Commissioners, what might the people in this county expect?

A thorough, forward-looking land-use plan would be a good place for commissioners to start. Here’s where they have staked themselves out on the issue:

* Chamberlain: During planning sessions earlier this year, the chairman said “let’s do it or shut up” about it. He has urged fellow commissioners to be more involved in trying to advance land-use planning, saying what’s happening along Interstate 85 toward Charlotte is scary.

* Mitchell: Ambivalent might be the best word here. Mitchell says he’s against county dictates on land use but favors the creation of a map that will show how the county is developing. This sounds like an after-the-fact approach — here’s where the farm was turned into a high-density condo development, and there’s where the chemical company built a plant near the housing development.

* Jim Sides: The most resistant member on the board to land-use planning, Sides has said he’s not willing to spend any money on a plan and doesn’t want to have anything to do with it. But he has also said he’s “not 100 percent opposed.”

* Jon Barber: Planning seemed to be Barber’s middle name during the fall campaign. He talked about the county’s need to “connect the dots,” and advocated a land-use plan that will manage future growth and respect property owners’ rights.

* Tina Hall: Critical of the Urban Institute’s first stab at developing a plan for Rowan, Hall has spoken often of the need for land-use planning here but wants it done in-house.

Rowan needs land-use planning, and it appears the county is going to get it. First and foremost, commissioners need to say what they will do to make the plan effective.

Land-use planning is not zoning, but let’s be honest about this. It can be the first step toward zoning — or, since Rowan already has zoning, more stringent zoning. The independent streak in Rowan’s Scotch-Irish blood does not look on that possibility with enthusiasm, but think about it. A land-use plan is supposed to describe how and where the county would like to see different kinds of growth — literally, how the county wants land used here. What’s the best area for industrial development? How about housing? If you draw up a plan that states an ideal but do nothing to make it happen with zoning laws, the plan is virtually useless. Which do you think outside developers will care more about — a county’s hopes for land use or their own bottom line?

The real dilemma involves balancing ideal patterns of development with landowners’ desire to do whatever they want. The consensus may be that Rowan wants to retain some rural, farming areas, but not all farmers feel that way. They want the right to sell to the highest bidder, whatever the use, if and when they decide to sell. In the meantime, they want very low tax values.

Commissioners can anticipate loud resistance from some corners. Knowing they can’t satisfy everyone, they’ll have to separate the wheat from the chaff. Difficult decisions hang in the balance. So do the logic and livability of the way Rowan develops.