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April 29, 2012

Respect essential in finding balance for York County development standards

York county leaders acknowledge that the current development standards need fixing. Respect needed to find the right rules for the county.

From Rock Hill to Houston, it’s about 1,000 miles. The journey from here to Clarke County in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley is about 400 miles.

Yet when it comes to the debate over York County’s development standards, leaders need to find a balance point between the two.

As referenced in last week’s County Council meeting, Houston has no zoning. In theory, a property owner can do whatever he wants with his land. In practice, Houston rigorously enforces deed restrictions and covenants between developers and homeowner associations. Those rules vary from street to street.

Clarke County, Va., could have been a bedroom community for commuters wanting to make about a 90-minute drive to Washington. But community leaders in this largely rural county decided 30 years ago that they wanted to preserve its pristine nature. After all, some of the initial survey lines were drawn by none other than a young George Washington.

Clarke County’s answer was a restrictive zoning ordinance, assigning to each rural property a maximum number of dwellings that could be built. A 100-acre parcel is allowed four dwelling units, and the code has maximum and minimum lot size restrictions. The result is that the developers of cookie-cutter subdivisions passed Clarke County by, which is just fine with most of the county’s residents.

So, where is the balance point for York County?

As County Council has acknowledged, the decision needs to be local – not made by outside advisors or, as some conspiracy theorists believe, to meet mandates from the United Nations.

The first question needing an answer is the sentiment, “It’s my land and I can do anything on it.”

It was a message loudly delivered by those at Monday’s meeting, but is that the majority opinion of York County residents?

If so, the answer is easy: Repeal the current code. That would put York County and Clarke County on the extremes with Houston in the middle.

I suspect that’s too radical for most York County residents and business owners. They want some degree of certainty. Governments are formed to create some sense of order, and that’s what development standards do.

They protect natural and historical resources. The county needs reasonable standards to protect the Catawba River, where we get our drinking water. Many also would like to protect York County’s historical resources, where the Catawbas lived and battles were fought to secure our constitutional freedoms.

Order also means investments are protected, and property owners have a reasonable expectation of what might be built on abutting property. For business owners, order and certainty are factors in profitability.

It appears there will be another attempt to change the codes. County Council members, staff and developers acknowledge that the code needs fixing. Some of the ideas in the draft unified development ordinance have merit.

Proposals offer to create a new committee – one that includes council members, county staff, developers, home builders and those who deal with standards daily, as well as residents.

Each group comes with differing perspectives. Government types typically look ahead 5, 10, 20 years when making land-use decisions. Politicians typically have a shorter timeframe, driven by the next election. Developers’ timelines are even shorter, driven by the needs of their clients. The most flexible timeline is that of residents, who are usually driven to action when a bulldozer shows up unannounced next door.

There needs to be an understanding that some of the problems result from mandates by Columbia and Washington, D.C. Often mentioned is the time to get permits for stormwater and erosion control. It frustrates home builders. It frustrates county staff. The solution to the problem won’t come exclusively from the York County Council.

To get the results York County needs, committee members will need to play well with others in the sandbox. Check ego and personalities at the door. Bring your passions, bring your ideas, and be good listeners.

Foremost, bring a healthy dose of respect for others. Without it, nothing positive will happen.

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