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Editorial: Last gasp for land use

The people who oppose land-use planning in Rowan County talk about freedom. We have a lot of freedom in the United States ó freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press and much more. But we also have government restrictions to protect the common good. There are speed limits, sanitation laws, water quality standards, child-labor laws ó even zoning laws. We all live with and benefit from some degree of government regulation.
The question in land-use planning is, how much is enough? Where is the perfect balance that protects and promotes the common good while also affording land owners as much freedom as possible?
That is the dilemma Rowan County commissioners face Monday as they hear from the public on a proposed land-use plan for the area west of Interstate 85. Though the plan does not lay down new zoning laws, it does suggest the direction Rowan would take as more rural land is developed for residential and commercial use. The plan is fairly toothless; the word “encourage” comes up a lot. But the proposal does outline a more detailed subdivision approval process. And it gives planners much more direction in dealing with proposals from developers. In areas adjacent to Salisbury, Spencer, China Grove and Landis, for example, the document encourages medium-density residential development. In a small area south of N.C. 152, it calls for conservation subdivisions for all proposed developments greater than 20 acres. North of N.C. 152, it suggests few restrictions, only encouraging (there’s that word again) direct access to thoroughfares, increased setbacks and “buffering that preserves useable open space, farmland and/or rural character.”
Some sterner language and tighter restrictions approved by the Land-Use Steering Committee have been removed. Things like landscaping standards and separate curb cuts for commercial development are out. So is the proposed overhaul of existing county ordinances.
The plan includes much more than can be outlined here. The full document is on the county’s site, www.co.rowan.nc.us. Under Departments, click through to Planning and Development first, and then Land Use (under other useful links). That page has both the Steering Committee’s final draft and the Planning Board Work Session Version, which is the one up for consideration Monday.
To sum it up, land-use planning is much more complicated than the freedom-vs.-control dichotomy suggests. Some paint the Planning Board’s approach as a cave-in to development interests, but at least it is a plan. If commissioners don’t approve this land-use plan, Rowan won’t have one at all. The county is not going back to the drawing board yet a third time. If commissioners do approve the plan, conservationists can still find ways to encourage (there’s that word again) farmland preservation. The political process is not perfect, but it is a process, and this is where we are.

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