Published On: Tue, May 2nd, 2017

EDITORIAL: Using the “z” word





Most communities don’t like it. When it comes to land use, owners don’t like to be told how they can, or can’t use their land. The idea of zoning gets people in a bad mood. Zoning, or comprehensive land use plans, can affect the value of properties and will impact the type.

Comprehensive land use strategies (zoning) is a template for current and future us of land within a given geography. A team, usually a county or town government, will come together and develop a plan for the best use of available land within their town or county. In our case, it would be our tribal government that would prepare, present, execute, and enforce a zoning structure.

Zoning is typically not a popular topic of discussion for a politician. Mainly because politicians answer to constituencies. And, constituencies are generally made up of people who hold (i.e. own) land. As we mentioned before, we don’t like to be told how we can use what we own.

Without a strategic approach, we are left with a patchwork of use, which reduces the potential of some properties and causes community conflicts. Without zoning, by way of a simple example, Land Owner A may choose to create a children’s day care while Land Owner B, who owns the adjacent property to Land Owner A, decides to open an adult sex shop. Larger, more costly examples, are prime land plots that line high traffic roadways that are being designated for non-commercial use. The earning potential for many properties is lost because of a lack of a strategic use plan for those areas. Long term considerations cannot be effectively made about power, water, and sewer needs without a plan that specifies the use of property. A zoning plan, or lack of one, impacts the future farming, retail business, municipal structuring, and housing.

Like many reservations or, in our case, trust lands belonging to Native Americans, much of the terrain is mountainous. Much of the property we hold does not naturally lend itself to development. We have either hilly, rocky conditions to overcome, or much of the buildable, commercially advantageous property lies in a flood plain. For the Tribe, a zoning structure is critical to the future of our people. Like building a bicycle with the instructions, we are likely to take longer, spend more money on tools, be more frustrated, and likely end up with something we can only ride for a little while before we must rebuild it.

An article from 2015 entitled “The Purpose of the Comprehensive Land Use Plan” outlines great benefits of zoning. A plan provides continuity. The tribal strategic plan would give a structural guideline that would be used as a foundation for generations of administrations of government. A plan is how a community can balance competing private interests. One land owner may want to build a port-a-john cleaning facility on his property, while the adjacent property owner is building an outdoor bistro. Without a plan, the situation is likely going to end up in court.  A plan is how a community can protect public investments. “Planning is how a community avoids digging up last year’s new road to lay this year’s new sewer pipe. Well-planned, orderly and phased development patterns are also expensive for a community to provide with public services than low-density, scattered development. It provides guidance for shaping the appearance of the community. A plan promotes economic development. Prospective firms wanting to locate on the Qualla Boundary want to know who their neighbors are going to be.  A plan provides justification for decisions. When businesses or land owners are told that they can’t use a piece of land for a specific purpose, a zoning plan helps justify why they cannot, so it cuts down on time in court, in addition to insuring best use of land. And, most importantly, through public dialogue, a plan allows citizens to express a collective vision for the future. The community has better control of the future of the Qualla Boundary when they are part of the planning process and the citizens collectively help decide the overall land use of the Boundary.

Zoning is a large part of a more important goal of diversification of revenue streams of the Tribe. We all sense the urgency of developing additional, stable, and substantial revenue generating opportunities for the Tribe. A quick read of local and regional media produce cause for concern that threats to our gaming operation could become reality sooner than later. Call it a “zoning plan” or a “comprehensive land use plan”. We, as a Tribe, need to be aggressive in developing a plan for the precious few land segments that are suitable for commercial development while protecting our natural resources, including the natural beauty that we have been blessed. Part of being good stewards of what we have been given is to thoughtfully and carefully create a plan for how those are used.