By Al Gray
In last weekend’s article, Overlay Somebody Else: My Battle With Columbia County Over Property Rights, the birth pangs of the ill-fated Evans Town Center Ordinance and the Evans Town Center Overlay District (aka ETCOD) in 2000 were revisited. This week, let’s look at what happened two years later, after the ‘rules’ had been in place long enough to judge how well they were applied.
During the heated debate of 2000, the spirit of economist and philosopher Frederic Bastiat had to have been there. Among his relevant quotes were these:
We can add to his list of legal plunder “town center ordinances” and “overlay zoning.”
Augusta attorney Gail Duffie Stebbins might not know Frederic Bastiat but she knew that the Evans Town Center was legal plunder. In 2002 Ms. Stebbins sued to have the Evans Town Center Overlay Zoning Ordinance set aside for failure to give her and other property owners sufficient, defensible notice. A Superior Court Judge agreed with her. Columbia County responded by curing the technical defects, then reintroducing the same ordinance.
The As the Columbia County News-Times reported about the November, 2002 meeting: “It wasn’t any more quiet the second time around,” an obvious reference to the near-riot that broke out in 2000 in a Planning Commission meeting at which the original ordinance was advanced to the Columbia County Commission.
Ms. Stebbins’ temporarily-successful law suit was easily sidestepped. The findings of the another speaker turned out to be fatal. The News Times report continued in its report: “The Evans Town Center is as dead as some misguided possum crossing I-20, run down by high-speed development,” said Al Gray, whose family owns land in the town center district.
Brash statements? Not really. You see, there are concepts as old as society itself that found themselves into the Constitution of the United States of America and the Bill of Rights. Citizens cannot be deprived of EQUAL PROTECTION OF THE LAW under the 5th Amendment and cannot be deprived of property without DUE PROCESS OF LAW under the 14th Amendment. By these standards the ETCOD ordinance was doomed, because there had been scores of noncomplying structures and developments built with county approval. The proof was demonstrated in this presentation, made to the county commission that night.
**(See the ETCOD Nonconformity presentation below. ETCOD Nonconformity (1)
The approach was this. First, the ETCOD ordinance was broken down into the component standards. Second, digital photos were taken of all structures, buildings, parking lots, and landscaping represented by approved and constructed projects since the Town Center was launched in 2000. Third, the noncomplying features were categorized under the pertinent design standard that was violated. Fourth, the fact that there were scores of noncomplying projects and only 5 variances requested and granted was documented. Fifth, it was pointed out that the near-universal approval of nonconforming structures would simply doom the ordinance in court.
This is how one defeats an overly aggressive government. One can turn the planners own ordinances, actions, and lack of enforcement against them. A property owner cannot be singled out for not conforming when equal protection says he must be accorded the same leniency of those who came before. Yes, that night Columbia County fixed Ms. Stebbins’ objections, only to run into decisive defeat before the meeting concluded.
The county never was able to subdue a patient determined landowner after that night, because they were armed with knowledge of their rights and how to successfully demand the same standards as those who came before them. Those standards had been gutted by the county’s own hand. “Columbia County does not have the resources to manage 5-square-miles with the ordinance as it is written,” said Richard Sorensen, a Northwoods subdivision resident. “What you are biting off is more than you can chew.”
After all, equal protection has its roots in the Bible admonition, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Even politicians find themselves nodding in agreement with that.
The Town Center plan ended up being a collection of upgraded architectural finishes and landscaping, but the unenforceable parts died that night.
Today, Columbia County’s Richard Harmon is putting the finishing touches on a comprehensive rewrite of the Evans Town Center ordinances, based upon these realities. Wise heads prevailed in the end. ***