Our opinion: How we use zoning

There was a time when people as well as governments cared not a whit about land use. Factories popped up next to houses, stamping plants adjacent to playgrounds.

You can see the results in faded pictures of places like Pittsburgh before the turn of the 20th Century. They are not pretty pictures.

As that century progressed, people became more concerned with the health and safety of their neighborhoods as well as their property values. They had found when it came time to sell a house, if that house was in the shadow of a coke furnace, it was worth far less than one surrounded by other houses. Likewise, people wanted green spaces in their midst, and they wanted them protected from development.

They complained to their local governments, and the concept of urban planning and land use was born. Its primary tool is zoning.

Easy, right?

Wrong.

Few things rile property owners – residential, commercial and industrial alike – more than zoning conflicts. After all, they have a lot riding on the issue: the health, safety and property value concerns we noted earlier.

When the Warren County Commissioners were confronted with a zoning conflict earlier this week, they faced another issue: the protection of one business enterprise from a potential competitor. That issue was succinctly offered by one of those residents arguing against a zoning change to allow development of a new store. “We’re tired of being told we’re stopping progress. We don’t want a Dollar General because of what it does to businesses. This will gut the existing business in Sugar Grove. It’s all about what you consider to be progress.” The inference is that if the development were for a bookstore or other enterprise not already represented in the community, there wouldn’t have been opposition to the zoning change.

We understand their concern and admire their loyalty to a local business, but we wonder if that’s a legitimate use of zoning.

It seems to us, that if there are issues involving the health and safety of surrounding landowners and the value of their properties, those are all things which should be legitimately considered by those making zoning decisions.

However, restricting the establishment of certain businesses because they might compete with another existing business seems contrary to the free enterprise system. If you don’t want a Dollar Store in your midst, don’t shop there. If enough people feel the same way, the Dollar Store won’t be open very long.

Likewise, we are wary of government providing incentives in the way of tax breaks or other special assistance that would give one commercial enterprise unfair advantage over another.

What is happening in Sugar Grove begs an important question: Just how far can or should a government go to manipulate or restrict free enterprise. We believe it shouldn’t go down that road very far at all.