EDITORIAL Zoning protects all of us

September 9, 2017
Jim McNutt/Observer-Reporter Exterior of the Observer-Reporter building in Washington.

It’s believed that some form of zoning goes back to at least the days of ancient Greece and the Roman Empire, while zoning in its modern permutation is said to have emerged in the 1870s in Germany.

Since the United States is no longer a vast expanse of frontier where the nearest neighbor might be a day away on horseback, it makes sense for communities to have zoning. OK, it can be a pain in the neck to have to submit an application to, say, build a fence, but zoning is the best and most dependable way to make sure people who live and work near one another can do so harmoniously.

Let’s say you ardently watch the HGTV cable network and decide to pour thousands of dollars into fixing up a house. Would you want someone to start up a junkyard right next door? Establish a chemical plant that spews noxious fumes and rattles and hums at 3 in the morning? Zoning assures that the way we use our property aligns with how everyone around us is using their property – houses are typically surrounded by other houses, stores are in retail districts and industrial properties are clustered together, or are a reasonable distance from schools, hospitals, nursing homes or neighborhoods.

There aren’t many communities left in the United States that aren’t subject to zoning. Houston is the largest city that goes without it, and it may have contributed to the devastation of Hurricane Harvey, since sprawl has eaten up so much of the land that could have absorbed Harvey’s epic rainfall. In Washington County, Donegal Township is the last community to go without it, and an attempt by township supervisors to put a zoning ordinance on the books has ignited a firestorm of opposition, with residents saying zoning rules could destroy the township’s rural character and throw a wrench into the day-to-day operations of businesses and farmers. They’ve gone to court to have it thrown out, and a slate of anti-zoning candidates appears to be poised to take over the township board.

“I don’t think we need zoning,” resident Sherri Laird said earlier this year. Addressing the township’s zoning board, she said, “I don’t think you ... should be able to tell me what to do with my land.”

Some opponents of the zoning ordinance have also taken to wearing T-shirts saying they support, among other things, “liberty,” “independence,” “freedom” and “equality.” Arguing zoning represents some form of creeping totalitarianism – or, at the very least, a grievous loss of liberty or freedom – is a misconception of what those ideas are all about.

We may own a car, sure, but we don’t have the freedom to drive it at 125 mph, at least not legally, thanks to speed limits. And we may own property, but that doesn’t mean we can, or should, have unlimited freedom to do whatever we want with it. If we’re going to get along with each other there have to be some rules, and zoning helps ensure that we will be able to be in accord with our neighbors. Zoning is ultimately about protecting our own property and our own rights.

Officials in Donegal Township say they were prompted to implement a zoning ordinance because of a natural gas compressor station and a machine gun range that have turned up there. What else could come to Donegal Township if it doesn’t have zoning?

If its zoning ordinance is scuttled, Donegal residents could well come to regret it.

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