COMMENTARY: Getting in the Zone

by Oct 26, 2020OPINIONS





Zoning has been a dirty word in Cherokee for as long as I can remember. In a discussion during one of my early days in working with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the subject was brought up by one of the folks less educated on the history of the subject on the Qualla Boundary. Someone spoke the word “zoning” and what quickly followed was a long volley of “don’t say that word” and a just as long explanation that people “around here” don’t like the idea of being told what to do with “their land”. It was stated that they had enough of that from the state and federal governments. It has been a long-standing tradition on the Boundary that restrictions on land use are a “no no”.

However, recently, the EBCI Planning Office has dared to speak the word again and it seems that tribal government may be ready to listen and there may even be some business community support for it. Zoning has long been a tool to protect communities from business encroachment into residential areas and to provide clear guidelines for business growth in a community. 

First and foremost, for Cherokee and surrounding areas, zoning would create areas of residential use and prospective use that would protect those from the high traffic that tends to occur when retail businesses are inserted in the community. When a community is properly zoned for residential use, areas could be restricted from certain types of businesses. Those that require a certain level of commercial or retail traffic would be prohibited. It would be up to Tribal Council and Executive Office what types of business would be considered not feasible for home use and regulations would be set in place to allow for certain business and to disallow others. 

For example, Tribal Council and Executive could look at businesses, like they presumably do at Business Committee, and, based on a particular business projected traffic flow and delivery frequency, say whether or not a certain type of business could be operated from a home while protecting the safety and serenity of the neighborhood. 

In a residential area, a single-person beauty salon that did not have any commercial deliveries other than small mail package carriers and one or two clients every hour or so might be acceptable use while living next door to a Walmart, with daily tractor-trailer deliveries and hundreds of customers, might be a threat to the safety and serenity of a residential community. 

So, our government would put in regulations to say where and how business would develop in our community to the benefit of the residents and protect those same residents from any disruption of life from commercial business where they live. It would be up to our government leadership to say what would qualify as a residential area and what restrictions would apply there.

Zoning also designates areas of free commercial trade that would exclude residential construction. This would allow business and business developers to plan and construct businesses that are vital to the economic health of the Boundary. 

Over the past decades, Tribal Education and Economic Development have been nurturing tribal members who have the desire to become entrepreneurs. They want to own and operate businesses of their own. Many of those Cherokee people are artists and crafts persons. Many want to operate retail shops. Some think on a small scale, others on a grand scale. For levy and privilege taxes (revenue streams for the Cherokee community), the Tribe wants not only our Cherokee entrepreneurs, but other outside big businesses to come in to manufacture and sell their products. The additional benefit of a robust business community on the Boundary is that tribal members will be able to get more of the products and services they need on Boundary, so tribal dollars go back into the tribal economy. 

But, all that internal economic growth depends on businesses feeling comfortable about land use on the Qualla Boundary. Properly zoned, our Kituwah LLC and Tribal Planning and Economic Development entities could properly promote and ensure prospective businesses a satisfactory working environment. 

We have done the best job possible with the tools we have used in the previous decades to promote public safety and inject life in the business community. But, the past approach has resulted in a patchwork of residential and commercial entities, and possibly lost opportunities. Now may be the time to do more and take the next step in community growth. Zoning can be a very beneficial step forward in a very uncertain economic time. It will provide a framework for future growth. It will protect land we need for putting Cherokee people into homes and guarantee them a safe environment in which to raise families. It will give developers the foundation they need to reduce the time commercially purposed land sits idle and give our entrepreneurs the help they need to plan and execute their dreams. 

There has been a long time disconnect in the minds of many of our Cherokee citizens about economic development. Over the years, we have come to believe that economic development is for business and doesn’t help the community much. The fact is that the things we enjoy – elder and child care, community and gym buildings, and, yes, swimming pools and hospitals, all depend on the Tribe being able to generate sufficient revenue to pay for all of our services. As has been said by many in our leadership, including Principal Chief Richard G. Sneed, we are in a time of unprecedented uncertainty when it comes to the economy of our Tribe. We must be smart in our spending, and extremely smart in our planning and execution. 

Zoning will be a benefit to all, and it is long overdue.