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All or nothing on plan for land use; public comment sought before commissioners vote

By Jessie Burchette
jburchette@salisburypost.com
The two-year effort to get a land-use plan for western Rowan County could end Monday night after a public clash of wills and views.
The Rowan County Board of Commissioners will conduct a public hearing that is expected to draw a large crowd of proponents and opponents.
The board meets at 6 p.m. but will start the land-use hearing at 7 p.m. A table with speaker sign-up sheets will be in the hallway outside the board room until 7 p.m.
Carl Ford, chairman of the Board of Commissioners, said everyone who signs up to speak will be allowed to do so if takes adjourning the meeting until Tuesday.
“We’ve got two groups ó they both want all or nothing,” Ford said.
The groups include the Land Use Steering Committee and some farmers who see the land-use plan as a critical tool to preserve farmland.
The other side includes the Rowan Property Rights Alliance and others who view land-use planning as infringing on property owners’ rights.
The hearing is open to residents throughout the county. Ford noted this will serve as a basis for a plan for the eastern section of the county.
But Ford said once the speakers are through, he wants the board to vote it up or down.
“This is the last hurrah,” said Ford, adding that the vote will be on the version of the land-use plan approved by the Rowan County Planning Board.
Ford, who was on the Planning Board when it considered the plan, views land-use planning and farmland preservation as separate issues.
Two commissioners, Raymond Coltrain and Vice Chairman Jon Barber, have called for the board to consider the more farm-friendly version approved by the Land-Use Steering Committee.
The Planning Board made substantial changes, removing language intended to protect farmland and discourage development.
Commissioners got something of a warm-up session earlier this month. Barber invited a state Farm Bureau official to make the case for preserving farmland.
Stephen Woodson, associate general counsel for the N.C. Farm Bureau Federation, said North Carolina ranks No. 1 in the country for lost farmland. Between 2003 and 2006, the state lost 300,000 acres of farmland.
He talked extensively about voluntary agricultural districts and preservation issues, calling the present use tax value program the most important farmland preservation tool counties have.
Responding to questions, Woodson said the Farm Bureau doesn’t support zoning as a tool to preserve farmland. He said retired farmers want the option to sell all or a portion to support their retirement.
During the discussion, Coltrain noted that as much as 90 percent of the farmland in Rowan County is rented to other farmers. He estimated that only 10 percent of the farmers own the the land they work.
James Rollans, a western Rowan farmer and member of the Steering Committee, has been the most outspoken supporter of the Steering Committee version.
Earlier this month, Rollans called on commissioners to consider the Steering Committee version, saying it has been gutted and butchered.
He said the Planning Board version removed or changed 42 percent of the original plan, charging that the Planning Board was biased.
“The Planning Board version should not be considered,” Rollans said. He said the Planning Board version encourages development rather than preserving the rural area of western Rowan.
He provided commissioners with a packet of information and a list of points contending efforts were made to taint the process, including stuffing comment boxes at public input sessions and skewing an online survey. Of 57 online responses, 47 were generated from six computers.
Rod Whedbee, a leader of the Rowan Property Rights group, responded that the process was tainted by having too many farmers on the committee. Whedbee said farmers are already getting millions of dollars in tax breaks from the present use value program, causing others to bear more of the tax burden.
Whedbee said he also supports farmland preservation ó but not a forced attempt through regulations.
Chris Cohen, who served as co-chairman of the Steering Committee, said Friday that he is hopeful commissioners will adopt a compromise version. “The farmland issues need to be addressed. The Planning Board took property rights to the extreme.
“Our plan tried to consolidate residential development where infrastructure ó sewer and water ó current exists. Those areas are in a better position for development.”
Cohen is encouraging farmers and other residents to attend the hearing and speak their mind. He is among those who feel the Steering Committee version was unfairly pushed aside.
“Commissioners could have tweaked that plan, it wouldn’t have hurt my feelings,” Cohen said.
This is the second effort to do a major land-use plan.
In 2005, the board ended the countywide effort lead by the Urban Institute at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte under a $150,000 contract. Many of those serving on the advisory panel became confused and frustrated with the technical language of the Urban Institute planners and quit attending meetings.
In April 2007, commissioners hired Benchmark of Kannapolis at a cost of $39,500 to develop a plans for all unincorporated areas west of U.S. 29.
In August, 2007, commissioners appointed an 11-member committee, selecting applicants from each of the 10 townships, along with a Planning Board member.
The committee got off to a rocky start, when some members objected to a proposal to take an oath. The oath was scuttled.
To read more about the plan and the proposal itself, go to www.co.rowan.nc.us. Under Departments, click through to Planning and Development, 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
Contact Jessie Burchette at 704-797-4254.

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