The hard-earned wisdom of local municipal governments, here and elsewhere across Tennessee and other states, is that sensible zoning and development standards typically improve property values, quality of life and general prosperity of all residents. And they do so without infringing on traditional and long respected property rights. Alas, some reactionary right-wing diehards in the Legislature are seeking to block the authority of local governments -- the governments closest to their constituents-- to keep such standards in place.
Acting apparently in league with the bottom rung of developers who care little about the long-term consequences of haphazard development, they've introduced a stack of bills in the Legislature aimed at destroying both the most common zoning standards, and the most popular means of improving growth, construction and land-use regulations. Tennessee's counties, cities and towns can't continue to properly grow and evolve if these errant lawmakers get their way.
The legislators pushing these varied bills -- there are more than half a dozen -- claim to be protecting individual property rights. That's a gross distortion. They would effectively undo more than 70 years of settled law in Tennessee on ordinary zoning rules.
Current zoning laws, for instance, already grandfather in existing uses of land. One proposed revision would turn the law upside down in order to vest unrestricted use of annexed land in perpetuity -- even if such land has been unused for allowed purposes for many years. That would directly harm a range of neighboring land-owners and denigrate the common good.
Under present law, if a municipality -- say, Soddy-Daisy, Collegedale or Chattanooga -- annexes land used for a factory or horse farm, those uses are grandfathered in as they exist until they are closed by the owner. If annexed land zoned for those uses is already idle and unused for those purposes, it may be rezoned after a specified period.
Going backwards fast
But under the proposed change, that process would be destroyed. For example, if Signal Mountain annexed land containing an old coal strip-mine -- such abandoned mines are common on Waldens Ridge -- it could never prohibit a new strip mine on that land through a rezoning unless the landowner agreed -- even if the old strip mine had been abandoned for many decades, and neighborhoods surrounding it have been built.
Another bill would take that kind of retrograde land-use abuse a step further. It would allow the rebuilding of a previous structure that would not conform to a new zoning standard. That would also disallow the application of newer and safer building, electrical and sewer codes.
Another bill would even expand the right to non-conforming uses to contiguous land held under common ownership.
Still another bill would allow erection of non-conforming on-site signs and billboards for such non-conforming structures that are rebuilt on land that municipalities would otherwise rezone. So new and ugly misuse of once-idle land could continue forever. That truly would be an outrage.
Renaissance would fade
Another bill would prevent local governments from uniformly applying widely approved rezoning overlays for designated areas that are undergoing broad redevelopment plans. Under these rules, a single objecting landowner of one of the abandoned factories and overgrown lots that blighted the city's downtown riverfront just two decades ago could have single-handedly held up the city's valuable riverfront renaissance. The rezoning and rehabilitation of the Southside and South Broad Street areas here might never occur under these rules.
Such proposed legislation is not just myopic and unreasonable: It is a stick of the eye of the vast majority of citizens in Tennessee's cities and towns who have embraced urban renewal and orderly suburban and urban growth. Worse, it is apparently motivated by a handful of developers who objected to metro Nashville's efforts to advance the city's progressive growth.
And it is stupidly abetted by a handful of lawmakers who are in thrall to a small minority of people who mistakenly fear that orderly development unreasonably threatens their personal property rights, though it does no such thing.
In reality, these bills would give a small fraction of landowners enormous new rights to which none of us are entitled. And it would do so at the clear risk of reversing our broad and popular progress.
Broad progress jeopardized
As Tennessee's towns and counties grow in population and congestion, standards that foster urban services and amenities are required. They broadly serve to protect and promote safer, sounder, greener and more visually appealing development. And they certainly attract the forward-looking companies that bring our communities good jobs with good family wages, and a higher quality of life.
Tennessee has been enjoying the fruits of progressive growth for decades. Wise zoning and land-use planning has served as an integral element of our economic development and job prospects.
The state needs to continue this sort of orderly and progressively smarter growth.
But unless the Legislature's Republican leaders can rein in reactionary lawmakers who would pervert good government and jeopardize our advancement, low-rung developers and people afraid of wise growth will wreck our progress. And Tennessee will lose its allure -- and its promise.