Z-Word Out of Closet in Dade: Zoning Hearing Long and Candid

October 1, 2019

The meeting room was (for once!) packed at Monday night's public hearing on Dade's proposed land-use ordinance. 


Monday night at the Dade Administrative Building was a mass demonstration of Dade citizens (uncharacteristically) participating in democracy as well over a hundred turned out for a public hearing on Dade’s proposed land-use ordinance.


What it was not—as elected officials with long memories probably dreaded—was a mass demonstration against zoning. But neither, as speaker after speaker took the stand, did it turn out to be a mass endorsement of the proposed half-measure, this-is-not-really-zoning ordinance the commission had put before the public the Friday before. If anything, the Sept. 30 hearing seemed a cry for a more serious stab at zoning.


“I’d prefer to have hard-defined guidelines,” said Greg Smyth (left), who runs a business at the local industrial park. “I’d prefer to have zoning.”


“If this is zoning, say it’s zoning,” said Jane Dixon, who ran unsuccessfully  for a commission seat last year.


“I’m a big fan of zoning,” said funeral home owner Steven Ryan. Zoning puts industrial facility next to industrial facility, he said, and makes it crystal clear when someone buys a place what can and can't go in next door. But this ordinance, he said, was too narrow (interestingly, other critics of the ordinance described it as too broad) and would never hold water. “I have reservations about this,” said Ryan.


So did others. Again, though, there was almost universal consensus that Dade does need some sort of regulation as to what kind of industry can build where. “We don’t want any industrial predators coming into our county, and believe me, they’re out there,” said Wildwood attorney Allen Townsend. “We need the protection of government in this case.”


Townsend, who has spoken in favor of an ordinance since the perceived threat of a chicken processing plant at the old Dave L. Brown farm mobilized Wildwood residents this summer, warned of businesses coming in next door "that may destroy your life," and that was the fear expressed by many others.  


“I am in Dade County because of the land,” said physical therapist Suzanna Alexander (right), who, like many others, described the Dade landscape as "beautiful," "magic" and "healing," and expressed determination to keep it that way.


“My children play in that creek," said Michelle Powell, referring to the possibility of the threatened chicken plant fouling the Wildwood waterway. If Dade puts no rules in place, she said: “We’ll only have ourselves to blame…we’ve got to protect ourselves. We’re a ticking time bomb.”


“It’s my water," said Katie Kasch Bien, Dave L. Brown's great-granddaughter, who is raising her family on another tract of the old farm. "It’s my air."


Ours, too, said Vaughan Sparrow, a senior administrator of the Wildwood Lifestyle Center, who explained he'd turned out to show support for protecting the healthful nature of Dade's air and water. "People come to us from all over the world and they go away impressed with our environment,” he said. “We like the fresh mountain air.”


We've all lived here a long time,  big game hunter Wes Hixon (left, in a file shot), who runs an international safari business out of a Wildwood office, told his neighbors, and we all have a stake in preserving it. “I don’t want to see some big-time investor come in here and basically force something down the throat of the citizens of the community,” he said.


J.J. Rorex waved a Georgia Tech study he quoted from, citing Dade as only one of four counties left in Georgia with no form of zoning on their books. “We are wide open for a disaster here,” he said. "Anybody can do anything they want beside you right now.” And don't worry about government interference in individual property rights, he advised. In 29 years, nothing he'd thought of to do on his property had been anything local government could object to, and he would bet it's the same with his neighbors. “So what are we concerned about?" he said. "Protect your home.”


“For almost everybody, most of your wealth is in your house,” said interpretive ranger Josh McKinley (right) similarly. The odor of a chicken plant next door would make houses virtually worthless, he said.


But others--though most agreed some rules needed to go on the books--advised caution. How, asked District 2 Commissioner Phillip Hartline, could the county make rules against smells and not expect to impact agriculture?


Dr. Billy Pullen, a Wildwood resident who said he was against the incursion of any chicken processing plant into his neighborhood, pointed out that many of his Dade neighbors ran chicken houses and he was certainly not against that. “It’s the only viable form of agriculture in Dade County of any significance,” he said. 


Would the ordinance discourage concrete plants? asked Dr. P. (left). Trucking industries? "We need to be careful what we run out," he said. And: “I cannot go for this as written.”


Surveyor and former District 3 Commissioner David Young had compiled a list of businesses not named in the draft ordinance but encompassed in it via a clause that blanket-attaches a larger federal index of trades and activities. Unless amended to exclude them, said Young, the ordinance would have to treat as industrial uses hang gliding businesses, furniture making, machine shops, food prep and delivery, blowing glass and making cheese.


Industrial users would have to cough up $500 for a permit application fee, then go before the citizens in a public hearing for approval. Those, pointed out Greg Smyth, would include not only David Young's glass blowers and cheese makers but, under another section of the ordinance, Smyth himself if he chose to expand his business more than 25 percent. “You can decide whether I can expand my business,” he said. That made the right to conduct business in Dade a "popularity contest," he said, in which his success might be stymied because “I didn’t hire your cousin.”


“Give me zoning," said Smyth. "I understand the rules.”


Dan Zinc said he was "tired of little ticky-tack rules that don’t do any good” but wanted “something sane and rational to protect our rights.” He was one of the only speakers who mentioned one of the proposed ordinance's stranger provisions: “I did worry about the five acres being too large,” he said. The ordinance as written specifically exempts from regulation any property under five acres. The chicken processing plant in south Chattanooga takes up only 2.25 acres, said another speaker, and The Planet verified that the chrome-plating business on Highway 11 accused of poisoning local groundwater sits on only 2.2 acres.    


The wording of the ordinance in identifying what was permissible land use and what was not caught some hell from attendees. "Suitable?" asked Eileen Sheehan-Lowery. "Reasonable?" said Steven Ryan (left). "Whose reason?" "Excessive?" asked others. "Adversely affect?" All those terms are not measurable but subjective, said critics. “I think it needs to be black and white,” said former Dade Chamber of Commerce director Deb Tinker (below).



Rex Harrison said the ordinance as written empowers the county commission while disenfranchising  the county Industrial Development Authority. “The IDA is on board with this,” answered Dade County Executive Ted Rumley. But ostensibly, an ordinance that would force a manufacturer interested in Dade to pay $500 for a permit application, then defend itself before a public tribunal, would seem starkly at odds with  IDA's MO (enticing anonymous manufacturers with free land, complete tax forgiveness and outright cash handouts--IDA got Vanguard Trailer a $1 million payout from Georgia). Greg Smyth pointed out that the public hearing part sounded particularly uninviting. “I don’t know if we even need an IDA anymore," said Smyth.


Commissioner Hartline asked for a show of hands of those who thought that the ordinance as written would solve Dade's problems. Not that many fingers pointed ceilingward. "It's a draft, right?" said someone.

“This is not ready for prime time,” said Tom Black, and that did seem to be the general consensus.


“It’s way too broad,” said one man. And would it apply, he asked, to people who had invested in property before the ordinance passed?


Include better criteria so your decision is not so judgmental, Jane Dixon (leftt) admonished the commission, or risk being judged yourselves. “You’re going to lose friends, you’re going to lose family and your legacy is going to be bad," she pronounced. 


“I hope we do take the time on this,” said Rex Harrison.


County Executive Chairman Rumley said that would happen. "We’ve got until February to iron this out,” he said. “It’s got to be fine-tuned.” Between that and all the other criticisms of the ordinance, any residual hope of passing the ordinance at this month's meeting seemed to evaporate.


County Attorney Robin Rogers confirmed that Dade's stopgap temporary permit ban of 120 days left plenty of time to tweak the ordinance, and Rumley assured audience members subsequent versions would be posted on the county Facebook page for their inspection


Other highlights of the hearing--which spanned three hours and not the hint of a chocolate chip cookie--included  references to a wildly unpopular earlier attempt at introducing Dade to zoning. "Where were you people 20 years ago?” wailed Rex Blevins, a former commissioner who had sponsored Plan A. “I was cussed and ridiculed,” he remembered.


Rumley didn't cuss but he couldn't resist a crumb of ridicule:  “It was telling you how high you could cut your grass,” he said. Deb Tinker remembered that the earlier ordinance dictated how many pieces of farm equipment could be deployed per acre. Another former commissioner who was around for Dade's initial stab at zoning, Tommy Lowery (right, father of the current District 1 commissioner, Lamar Lowery) advised extreme caution this go-round. 


Again, though, there was a singular lack of ridicule or even resistance to the idea of zoning in general at the Sept. 30 hearing. J.J. Rorex (below)  assured the commission that even

industry itself preferred moving into areas that had zoning. Otherwise, he said, it was a constant fight with citizens. “If you want industry to come to Dade County, we’re going to have to set some guidelines,” said Rorex.


The hearing was conducted civilly throughout and ended on a positive note. “We can have growth and preservation,” assured Suzanna Alexander. “We can set a model for Georgia and the nation.”


"The heart and soul of it is we [all] want what’s best for the county,” said Katie Bien.


There we must leave it for now, pending further revisions to the ordinance and further public hearings. The Planet will duly report the former and faithfully announce the latter.


Meanwhile, zoning having come decisively out of the closet in Dade County, The Planet further promises its reader to stop referring to it as "the Z-word." 

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