Rezoning request reveals flaws in zoning enforcement

Published 10:05 am Thursday, January 2, 2020

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Vivian Allen was right on target when she approached county commissioners last month.

A neighbor, Jerry Douthit, had applied to rezone part of his just over a half acre from residential to highway business. The other half was already zoned for business, and he has been operating a garage there for years.

It seems that when he applied for a permit to construct an office on the site, the oversight was found. The entire property wasn’t zoned the same, and it needed to be zoned business for him to go ahead with his plans.

Mr. Douthit seemed sincere. He is nearing retirement, and has to have an office to keep his vehicle dealer’s license. He said he may rent the garage portion in the future, but would keep the office. Fine plans.

But Vivian Allen knows how zoning has historically worked in Davie County. And once the property is rezoned, it remains that until the next property owner asks for a change. Mr. Douthit won’t be around forever, so rezoning to highway business will open the area up to any of those businesses allowed in that district for years to come.

Back to Ms. Allen. She stated – correctly – that Davie County has been slack in enforcing zoning ordinances. Historically, Davie has operated on a complaint basis; meaning that if someone isn’t complying with zoning rules or permits, not much or nothing is done unless someone complains.

That’s a terrible way to do business. It punishes those who follow the rules, and allows the breakers to get by without following the rules, which usually will cost them some cash.

I’ve seen it where I once lived in Davie County. A neighbor got a special use permit for a business in a residential zone. They told the county commissioners there would be no more than five employees. It was written into their permit. Within a year, there were 10-12 vehicles parked there daily. I guess those employees each drove two vehicles to work. I didn’t complain because I liked my neighbors, and the use really didn’t bother me. But it should have bothered the county, and maybe would have if someone had only checked.

Any time an ordinance is adopted, the county needs to think about enforcement – not the right to enforce – but actual enforcement. That’s the only way it can be fair. If you adopt a rule, be prepared to enforce it. The towns in Davie County are doing a much better job of zoning enforcement than the county.

And the complaint process pits neighbor against neighbor, which is never good. Just ask the sheriff.

Once, many years ago, I counted 50 something sign ordinance violations that the zoning officer passed on their way to work every morning. Their response: no complaints, no action. I’ve even seen Mocksville violate its own sign ordinance. They took it down when it was pointed out. I still question the information sign at the new town park, but zoning officials say it is OK. Would they allow another business in town to erect such a sign outside their business? If not, it’s probably against the ordinance.

But back to Vivian Allen’s concerns. She was worried that a Dollar General would be put on the site at 1295 NC 801 N. at Willow Oak Lane. Mr. Douthit said he had no plans to sell, and had not been contacted by Dollar General. I believe him. Where he went wrong was when he said no business – including Dollar General – would ever want to go there because the land doesn’t perk. The Dollar Generals of the world likely use less water than the average househould, just a bathroom for a few employees and a place to wash hands and eyes.

So a Dollar General could go there. Or a myriad of other low-water usage businesses.

There should have been a way for the county to allow Mr. Douthit to continue operating his garage without opening up the area to future business development. Even at this meeting, the zoning officer said commissioners should consider that there are other business zones nearby – notice nearby, not adjacent. That “nearby” just got closer to folks living further up the road.

Commissioners approved the rezoning on a 4-1 vote. Benita Finney was the only one to vote against it, citing potential noise problems and businesses encroaching on residential neighborhoods.

Good for her. At least somebody understands.

Yes, neighborhoods change and business areas grow. But property shouldn’t be rezoned just because it’s a good guy with a good plan. And for goodness sake, if you adopt a rule or put something into a permit, be prepared to enforce it.

– Mike Barnhardt