The fight over a proposed quarry has brought Lee County’s Master Plan back to the public’s attention, after lying fallow for over a decade. The recent vote by Beat 13 residents to accept zoning within the plan’s framework has some people thinking it may be time for zoning for the rest of Lee County.
“I don’t think it would be a hard sell,” said Gary Long, the District 3 county commissioner who helped appoint the first version of the county’s planning commission over a decade ago. “Some people have minds made up (against zoning) obviously, but a lot of people would prefer to have some sort of control over their community.”
The cities of Auburn and Opelika already have zoning in place and are not subject to any county zoning or planning. Save for Beat 13, the rest of unincorporated Lee County has no restrictions on what can be built anywhere. In theory, someone could opt to put a junkyard or hog farm on their own land, regardless of what their neighbors may think about it – subject to whatever county, state or federal regulations would apply.
The Master Plan – dubbed “Leave Your Mark” – was issued in 2010 after extensive public surveys, deliberations and town hall meetings held in 2008-09 throughout the county. Here’s the executive summary:
“The purpose of the plan is to provide a long term guide for physical development of the county. The plan is not a zoning plan, nor does it include a zoning map or other provisions. The Master Plan is intended to be part of an ongoing planning process which will be updated and revised as needed as the county continues to grow.”
It identifies the communities, existing uses of land, high-traffic corridors, high and low population density areas, open spaces and utilities coverage throughout Lee County.
“We did a lot of town halls throughout the process involving the different beats and the different areas of the county, so that they (citizens) could own it with us and really help direct it. There was a lot of input that way,” said Kevin Flannagan, a charter member of the first planning commission who serves as chairman of the current version.
The plan includes definitions of various land uses, with an eye on their historical usage and sustainable future development. Land designations include urban core, suburban center, suburban, rural center, rural residential, general rural, rural agriculture, conservation, preservation, corridor and special district.
The plan lists goals for future development, but it doesn’t impose any hard rules on land usage – any and all zoning changes would be recommended by the planning commission, but they would need a public hearing and approval from Lee County commissioners.
Both the Master Plan and the planning commission sat on the sidelines for over a decade. Earlier this year, a group of residents around Beulah in Beat 13 asked for the county’s help to keep CreekWood Resources from establishing a granite quarry on U.S. 29 near Beans Mill.
First, the Lee County Commission reactivated the planning commission, which in turn drew from the Master Plan to recommend zoning for Beat 13.
But before that could happen, the residents of Beat 13 had to vote to make their property subject to zoning, and on May 18 they did just that, favoring zoning by a 2-to-1 margin.
The next day, the county commission voted to accept the planning commission recommendations, which allow for most land uses aside from that of heavy industry and mining.
CreekWood is still waiting for approval of the necessary air and water emissions’ permits from the Alabama Department of Environment Management. Once those are issued, it is expected that the company will attempt to start operations at the site despite the recent imposition of zoning.
County officials have retained outside legal help and expect the company to sue for the right to do business in Beat 13.
The quarry fight and reinstatement of the planning commission has some people thinking about zoning for unincorporated Lee County. The process for that, as it stands, is complicated.
In order for a countywide application of zoning rules based on the Master Plan, residents outside Auburn and Opelika would have to approve it. The current system requires votes Beat-by-Beat, with petitions signed by landowners registered to vote in each beat, followed by an election open to all registered voters in said beat.
Flannagan, the current chairman, and his colleagues on the new planning commission held several public hearings regarding zoning and planning prior to the county commission approving it for Beat 13. They recently hired Birmingham consultant Jim Lehe to help them draw up the zoning language approved by the county commission and create the www.leecountyplanning.com website to post meeting minutes, documents and schedules.
Flannagan said it could be a good time to hear citizens’ views about zoning for the rest of the county, pro or con. It would be fine with the county’s electorate voting yes or no on the question, he said, but he thinks it would be worth asking first.
“I’ll be the first to say I’m for limited government. … There are places where zoning has been used by government against the best interests of so people, but that’s not true in Alabama,” Flannagan said. “There’s nobody here that wants to make your life any harder than it is; I think there are good-hearted folks who want the same things as everyone else.”
Long agrees with Flannagan and said some people confuse zoning with incorporation. Zoning would not create new towns or taxes, he said, but would pertain solely to land use.
“I think it would be better for the county,” Long said. “I think there are people worried that the county is going to take away their land, but I get more people worrying about issues that zoning could address. … It’s a double-edged sword: people want it or they don’t.”
Flannagan and Long agree that the current system – requiring petitions and elections Beat-by-Beat – would be a tough task to pull off. However, one of Lee County legislators could put a bill through the state legislature to replace Beat-by-Beat with a countywide petition and ballot arrangement.
Flannagan said the planning commission may discuss the matter when it meets again Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. at the Bennie Adkins Meeting Center, across from the Lee County Courthouse in downtown Opelika.