Story last updated at 10:19 PM on Dec. 28, 2004
Forum: Is zoning backlash possible?

By States McCarter

On Nov. 2, Oregon voters approved Measure 37 with an amazing 60 percent margin. Measure 37 requires the state or any local government to compensate owners for any reduction in the fair market value of their property that results from government enforcement of land use policies.

The measure will virtually eliminate protective zoning decisions, unless Oregon governments can ante up some big bucks for compensation - an unlikely event in these tight budget times.

How could this happen in a state that is very much environmentally green and politically blue? Could it be a backlash against what many citizens consider overly restrictive land use policies? Convincing tactics were used in the campaign. According to a New York Times article, one advertisement showed a woman being cited for cutting blackberry bushes in her backyard in Portland, presumably because they were potentially a wildlife habitat. Such draconian measures likely caused a backlash.

Could such a backlash occur in Georgia? It should be noted that a law like Measure 37 is not possible in Georgia without a state constitutional amendment. The Georgia Constitution incorporates home rule doctrine with regard to zoning decisions. Fortunately, the Georgia Supreme Court has consistently been supportive of allowing local governments to make land use decisions.

But hundreds of local elected officials have been voted out of office when they have become extremists in the eyes of the voters. A few years ago, Cherokee County Commission Chairwoman Emily Lemcke, a homeowner association activist turned politician, was dumped by voters after one term because she became too restrictive with regard to development. Conversely, long-time Gwinnett County Commission Chairman Wayne Hill was defeated in that strikingly red county because he was considered to be overly promotional, from a development standpoint. Sooner or later, extremism brings a backlash.

Can this happen in Athens-Clarke County? Certainly, in past elections certain elected officials have been defeated because they were considered to be too friendly toward development interests. Could the opposite occur?

The 2006 election may be informative on that question, as it will be the first nonpartisan commission election.

A rezoning request for a proposed medical building at 1140 Prince Avenue (now on hold as developers reconsider their plans for the site) may prove particularly indicative, as some people considered the opponents of that rezoning to be somewhat unreasonable in their demands.

I am troubled because such give-and-take battles, where there is much take and little give, could lead to a neighborhood-interest backlash. We will know in 2006 and in elections thereafter. One purpose of elections is to determine whether an elected official is in step with his or her constituents and is doing what is best for the community at large.

• McCarter is the District 8 Athens-Clarke County commissioner.

Published in the Athens Banner-Herald on Wednesday, December 29, 2004