Who doesn’t desire clarity in everything? We want clean lines. We want to know right from wrong. We want to see distinctly where we should go. Ambiguity never feels like a welcome friend, does it?
But we see, too, that some things are ambiguous in their nature. Some things don’t lend themselves to clear answers. Oftentimes, there are legitimate points from diametrically opposed positions. Take zoning disputes, for instance. If I have plans to do something on my property that are completely worthwhile to me but that could affect my neighbor’s water, air, peace of mind, property value, etc., then what is right and what is wrong? If I own the land, then I have a pretty good argument to do what I want, right? But how far does that right extend? That’s a really tough question, because it’s based off competing perspectives.
Commissioners are charged with deciding these things. They have to tell a man or woman, “yes” or “no” on what he or she can do on their own land. They have to tell a neighbor, yes, you have to endure this huge detriment to your way of life, or no, you don’t have to feel betrayed because I will protect you from your neighbor. In these matters, commissioners can simultaneously be government villains or saviors. In fact, they have to live with an unsettling ambiguity in performing the job. They know that the public will be split on their worth. Some will appreciate them. Some will hate them.
So when I sit and watch commissioners in contentious matters, I have some sympathy. It’s the reason why most of us don’t want to do it. Some issues don’t allow for easy answers. It’s a curse of elected positions.
So, naturally, they want “right” spelled clearly in print or labeled in color-coded maps.
Can this clear things up? The answer is both yes and no (see, more awful ambiguity.)
What I’ve observed over the years on local zoning matters is this: commissioners have typically not listened to the county planning commission. And I don’t think it’s because of how guidelines, regulations, maps, etc. are drawn up. No, it’s the high emotions of the meeting room. It’s certainly not easy for a zoning board to take a vote against a hostile crowd, but it’s far easier for them to do it than for the commissioners. That’s because a recommendation is easier to make than a final decision, which will likely alter someone’s life.
Obviously, anyone at the BOC table wants firm guidelines. And that’s what the moratorium passed Monday by a 3-2 vote is an effort to do, establish some clarity, some way to give solid answers to the toughest questions. That desire makes perfect sense.
But I wouldn’t have voted for a moratorium. And here’s why: I don’t think any commissioners would be O.K. with any county department being shut down for three months while they get their policies straight. I think if any department head approached the board with such a proposal, the group would say, well, we understand the need to fix things. But no, you can’t shut down the office, because the public needs you to be open. You can’t put a “closed-for-business” sign on the door to the tax office, the Clerk of Court’s office, the recreation department. And I think the commissioners voted to do the equivalent Monday.
Of course, board members are absolutely right to actively review county guidelines. Such an effort is overdue. But it’s also in the public interest for business to go on.
When asked by Jim Escoe why the commissioners couldn’t just allow county business to continue without a moratorium, Chairman John Scarborough answered that it wouldn’t be right to entertain new items without having the proper guidelines in place. That seemed pretty sensible. I get that. But others implored the BOC to consider the unintended consequences of a moratorium on the public. And I found that to be a more compelling argument. Plan and review, yes, but don’t shut things down. It’s exactly like shutting down a department, because it affects services similarly. I wouldn’t be in favor of shutting down the tax office to get tax guidelines straight either.
What’s more, after all the planning and review are done, the truly difficult crux of the matter will remain. No guidelines can eliminate the truly tough spirit of the commissioners’ work. It’s harder than most people understand to be the source of public angst. So how will commissioners react when the next contentious issue comes before them? There have been times over the past two decades where I’ve seen something that was probably in the county’s overall best interest be opposed with absolute ferocity and leaders caved to the emotion and abandoned the guidelines. So will the new guidelines be firm gospel or a soft guide? If you hold up business for three months to set new guidelines, are you bound to the firm gospel route? It would seem so. Otherwise, it seems like a waste of time, doesn’t it?
And either way, the man or woman will come before commissioners again with tears in their eyes and a compelling tale of why their life will be ruined by a “Yes” that night. They’ll literally beg for a “No.” And no comprehensive land use plan, no color-coded map holds the fortitude to answer “Yes” in her face. It comes from inside the commissioner. It’s a matter of weighing value. Is the “Yes” right? Is the “No” right? In the face of real human anguish, it’s almost a spiritual or philosophical conundrum at times. It’s a morality play by on a county government stage. And it’s loaded with ambiguity.
So, we wonder why we’re always in this pickle when it comes to land use. Well, it’s emotion versus logic. It’s one valid value against another valid value. It’s not simple. We want the clear cerebral way ahead. But life and big decisions involve real emotion. And we are humans and swayed but such things.
A moratorium isn’t going to change that. A good land use map can be helpful, sure, but no, it can’t eliminate ambiguity at the BOC table, not at all, not when the specifics rise again and overwhelm the abstract with real tears and heartfelt anxiety. Clear direction on growth is a matter of intestinal fortitude as much as anything else. That’s the issue. That’s always been the issue and always will be, whoever sits in those chairs and whatever guidelines are passed. It’s why taking that seat at that table is so tough and why many of us would never dare run. We don’t have the stomach. Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal.