As Dade County prepares for a public hearing on its proposed land-use ordinance this evening, this seems a good time to hit the high points of a similar hearing held by County Commissioner Phillip Hartline on Sunday in his own Sand Mountain district.
Hartline (left) did not give much notice of his Sept. 29 hearing--the draft ordinance was, after all, only released to the public on Friday--but the session was videotaped, so that those who couldn't make it had a chance to watch remotely.
The proposed ordinance, which marks the first venture of this rural county into zoning, or regulating what can be put where, calls for certain heavy industries wishing to locate in Dade to apply for a special use permit. The permit would not be granted until after a public hearing, and until after the county commission determines that it meets criteria set forth in the ordinance. Those include "whether the proposed industrial use will adversely affect the existing use or usability of adjacent or nearby properties"--respondent to the fear of residents who fear industrial use of nearby land will harm their property values and the environment.
Hartline was the only Dade commissioner who voted no on the commission's stopgap measure to stop all heavy industry permits while the county attorney drew up an ordinance in response to the perceived threat of a chicken processing plant in Wildwood. But he is also the only commissioner who has spoken in favor of zoning in general. At the Sept. 29 hearing, he clarified his position:
"Chattanooga’s growing. It’s coming our way and there’s nothing we can do to stop it,” said Hartline. The question, he said is: How do we want it to grow? "Do we want to just put out ordinances every time, or do we want to take a step back, slow down and talk about zoning?” said Hartline.
Getting zoning right might be a one- or two-year process, said Hartline. Meanwhile, he said: "If I’m rushed, I’m probably going to vote no on everything that’s put in front of me.”
Having had his say, Hartline let audience members have theirs. Besides a few firebrands and fist-shakers--one peppery individual opined that zoning was meant to keep inferior people out while: "You got a bunch of inferior people already here"--most commentators seemed calm and thoughtful. One pointed out that zoning will affect everybody in Dade so everybody should have a voice in it, "and then you’ll get more support for it." Another said Dade needs long-term planning, that it should decide what it wants to be and then make it so.
Another speaker used as a cautionary tale for regulation a small business that crept into Dade unnoticed 20 years ago and has ever since used the deadly poison chromium-6 in its plating process. Now chromium-6 is in Dade's drinking water, he said. [Incidentally, the company he seemed to be referring to, C&S Plating on Highway 11 South, would apparently be exempt from the permitting process because the proposed ordinance makes an exception for businesses occupying less than five acres. The C&S Plating property is listed on the tax map as 2.2 acres.]
One speaker defended chicken processing plants as pleasant modern businesses and economic engines for good. Forbidding them would mean stifling the county, he said. The local high school graduates 100 students a year, he said: ”How many of those students can actually find a job and work in Dade County?”
Actually, said a local captain of industry, all of 'em, if they really want to work: “Everybody in our industrial park is starving for employees,” he said. “If we didn’t have Alabama as an employee base to pull from, we would have to shut down and leave.” He argued for zoning as a way to make the county more appealing a place to live and work for prospective employees who report: "I just rode by a four-mile junkyard coming down Highway 11."
The same man said an upside of the proposed rules would be that they would allow the county to rein in the excesses of the Dade Industrial Development Authority. As it is, he said, IDA conducts its courting of industries wreathed in secrecy. “They can bring anything in and nobody knows about it until after the fact,” he said. “Once it’s revealed, it’s there.”
Dade doesn't need any more of the kind of industries that bring minimum-wage jobs into the county, he said: “It’s kind of a shame you need an ordinance to control your own Authority.”
A Wildwood resident pointed out that the proposed ordinance does not forbid industry from coming into the county but restricts where it can situate. “It needs to be in certain defined areas so people don’t get hurt,” he said.
Commissioner Hartline, at one attendee's request, ascertained that the commission has 120 days of temporary relief with its emergency permitting ban, and thus no need to vote on the proposed ordinance at its regular October meeting this Thursday.
Hartline warned Wildwood residents who he said would rather see houses built than chicken plants--"I see a bigger detriment with 300 houses than with a 200-acre chicken farm”--and again put in a good word for sensible, agriculture-based zoning in the face of uncontrolled growth: "Zoning is the only way you’re going to control anything,” he said.
Like industries should probably be grouped together, he said, and the county should define how much land is needed to house an industrial park. The problem with the proposed ordinance, he said, is it puts zoning decisions within the sole purview of the county commission. “If we pass this ordinance, we are voting ourselves more power,” said Hartline.
Hartline also put in plugs for his other initiatives, putting Sunday sales of alcohol to public referendum, as well as altering the current county alcohol ordinance to make distilled spirits rules match those for malt beverages.
And finally, he brought up the coming referendum on renewing SPLOST--special purchase local option sales tax--the penny sales tax that the county and city governments use for everything from paving to computers to new buildings. “I personally think that SPLOST does a lot of good,” he said.
Did Hartline's town-hall-style meeting provide a microcosm of the larger hearing tonight sponsored by the commission as a whole, or will different points emerge and different voices clash more loudly? The only way to find out is to attend tonight's hearing--that's 6 p.m. in the Dade Administrative building, folks--or to follow such subsequent accounts of same as are provided by local news outlets, including this, your ever-faithful Dade Planet.