RALEIGH — Chatham County landowners would bear the costs of a “radical” land-use plan designed to benefit a small, politically connected elite. That’s the conclusion of a new John Locke Foundation Regional Brief.
“Chatham County’s proposed Corridor Overlay District would impose dramatic restrictions on people’s freedoms and property rights,” said report author Dr. Michael Sanera, JLF Research Director and Local Government Analyst. “The ordinance would result in a large-scale coercive wealth transfer. Whether intended or not, it would have a ‘Robin Hood in reverse’ effect, benefiting the rich at the expense of the poor.”
County commissioners are considering the Corridor Overlay District plan, which is billed as a tool for maintaining Chatham’s rural character, protecting open space, promoting economic development, and improving property values. It would “strictly control” use of privately owned land along 60 miles of the county’s major roadways, Sanera said.
“The proposed district ordinance would allow county government to take control of more than 23,000 acres of private land without having to pay the land’s owners,” he said. “It would also force most, if not all, new commercial and retail development into 10 designated intersections along major county roadways. These intersections, or nodes, contain little more than 7 percent of the county land outside existing cities and natural areas.”
The new ordinance would do more than just limit the location of future development, Sanera said. “The county would also prescribe the type of development acceptable in these designated nodes,” he said. “Regulations would control the size, location, and proportion of new buildings, along with the location of sidewalks, parking, and landscaping. The rules would even limit the heights and widths of windows and doors and specify the types of trees and shrubs permitted for mandatory landscaped buffers.”
Property owners would face even more restrictions in the 60 miles of major roadway covered by a 3,000-foot-wide scenic overlay district, Sanera said. “These new rules would create severe restrictions of the supply of land,” he said. “Land prices in the nodes would skyrocket, benefiting a lucky few landowners. Meanwhile, landowners along the major corridors who sit outside the nodes would suffer a large loss of land value. A cash-poor, land-rich property owner would suffer the most damage.”
Property owners in the nodes or within the areas covered by the scenic overlay district would be forced to get a conditional-use permit from the county for all new nonresidential development, large subdivisions, and mixed-use projects, he added.
“This provision places a great deal of discretionary power in the hands of county planners and commissioners,” Sanera said. “It sets up a relationship in which landowners who should be free to use what is rightfully theirs in ways they see fit would be forced instead to act like medieval peasants groveling toward the king with hat in hand.”
“Ambiguous language would help county officials reject any planned development that they deem to be inconsistent with the county’s ‘rural character,'” he added. “Commissioners would be free to justify imposing their personal preferences. Given these extremely broad grants of power, it is likely that landowners will face major injustices.”
This type of ordinance opens the door for problems, Sanera said. “The process leaves plenty of room for graft and corruption,” he said. “Those who control the county commission can benefit fellow members of the Chatham County elite.”
One bizarre consequence of the new land-use rules would involve the types of business that would sprout up along Chatham County’s major roadways, Sanera said. “Along with high land prices, the nodes would carry so many stringent development requirements that local entrepreneurs and their families would not be able to afford the development costs,” he said. “Only a national chain store such as Home Depot or Wal-Mart would have the resources to cover those costs before recouping them through sales.”
Chatham County is considering this land-use plan largely to offer a presumed aesthetic benefit to people driving through the county, Sanera said. “This plan would place all of the costs on the property owners and give all of the supposed benefits to those who use the roadways, most of whom would pay no cost.”
If county commissioners believe scenic buffers are in the public interest, the county should pay for the buffers, Sanera said. “Justice requires them to use tax money to buy property or easements from affected property owners,” he said. “The county should buy and plant any trees required for the buffer. That way landowners would not be forced to pay all the costs for supposed benefits shared by all county residents.”
Sanera recommends another step before commissioners move forward. “Any radical land-use plan such as this one would create a drastic change in Chatham County’s future development,” he said. “The idea should be put to an advisory vote of county residents, rather than a vote of a temporary majority of county commissioners.”
Michael Sanera’s Regional Brief, “Chatham County’s Land Grab: A selfish elite is trying to take over 23,000 acres for its personal benefit,” is available at the JLF Web site. For more information, please contact Sanera at (919) 828-3876 or [email protected]. To arrange an interview, contact Mitch Kokai at (919) 306-8736 or [email protected].