A House of Zoning Cards Turns into a Trap

Come on. You’ve got to laugh at the irony:

… a pitched zoning battle — ostensibly over a single sign — has horrified more than two dozen merchants and property owners who have invested their savings and their futures in this country crossroads [at Tiverton Four Corners]. …
The hearing — over whether a tenant of Sakonnet Purls can put a second free-standing sign up on the property — has droned on for hours and involved arcane legal arguments and thousands of dollars in attorney’s fees. …
… the idyllic tableau conceals tension between the shopkeepers and a zoning ordinance which some say works against the people whose enterprises maintain the character of the village, named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.

The problem, as reported by Gina Macris:

For one or another reason, like size, or setback from the road, [property owner James Weir] said, none of the signs conform to the sign ordinance, which Weir asserted was written to protect the town from shopping centers and is not tailored to the historic village. …
While the village commercial district went through [in 2000], it did not expand, leaving more than half the properties in Tiverton Four Corners — including the yarn shop — in a residential zone.
Donald Bollin, president of the Town Council then as he is now, cast the deciding vote in 2000.
At the time, Bollin said, he was swayed by residents who “thought the commercial district was already too much.”
“In the end, enough of the residential people were concerned about the traffic,” said Bollin.
While Bollin believes he made the right decision nine years ago, some recent zoning decisions — unrelated to Four Corners — have opened his eyes to the fact that the zoning ordinance envisions nonconforming uses will eventually disappear.

They may or may not. The larger problem is that strict regulations and a reliance on “non-conforming” uses creates a minefield when consensus proves not to be as strong as previously thought or rams into the individual interests of an insider. In an attempt to block brand-named stores (which would probably do very well with such an isolated community) while ensuring that small shops emerging into the void remained rustic rather than ragged, all while micromanaging traffic for the locals, the town set up a system whereby most development would have to be individually reviewed. That permits the desired subjectivity empowering zoning and council officials to block (for example) a CVS wrapped in a planning-board-mandated bucolic veneer.
When a town management strategy relies too heavily on the wink-wink-nod method of site-plan approval, however, the potential always exists for somebody to stop nodding and frown, instead.

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Warrington Faust
Warrington Faust
14 years ago

It seems long forgotten that “Euclidean Zoning” (Euclid, Texas, and now nationally) was found to be constitutionally permissbale under the “police powers” clause of the Constitution. That requires that it be a matter of public safety. “Lot size”, “side yard” and “set back” requirements were justified by the need to have sufficient area for a septic disposal and to prevent the spread of fire.
Somehow, “zoning” has come to be about protecting property values. This is widely accepted because few can remember prior to 1938 when there was no zoning. They actually think it’s purpose is protection of property values.
It is late in the game, but perhaps it is time to think about it again. I have long awaited a Supreme Court case. I think the last time it was fully considered was the Euclid, Texas case in the late 30’s. There have been rejections of “snob zoning” where lot sizes were completely unrelated to public safety and aimed at making those communities “unaffordable” to many.
I doubt they would turn it on its head, it is too entrenched now. Ginsburg’s interview the other day gave a good insight into this. She mentioned that the Roe v. Wade decision was made possible by the “population explosion” mania that gripped the country in the 70’s, not any textual reference in the Constitution. I think we are seeing that again in the “global warming” mania.

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