Washington County First in State to Repeal County Zoning
When Washington County Supervisors repealed county zoning, many residents saw proof that democracy works, although not as quickly as many would like. The story begins in 2007, when Supervisors began an update of the Comprehensive Plan, a process that drew little publicity or participation, but resulted in a highly controversial document which recommended the county consider adopting zoning. Although public opinion was strongly opposed to the plan for this reason, the Supervisors accepted it and shortly thereafter appointed a commission to write a zoning ordinance.
The Zoning Commission worked for months with a paid consultant to craft an ordinance suitable for a rural county whose population was little changed from 100 years ago. At every hearing, the majority of the public opposed the plan, but towards the end of 2009 the Commission voted to send the proposed ordinance to the Supervisors. At this point, a handful of people who had opposed the ordinance at the last hearing met at a local coffeehouse and formed a group they christened "Free County" because, according to founder James Graham, "we wanted to promote freedom, not just oppose zoning".
The nascent group quickly attempted to inform the public of some of the lurking dangers within the proposed ordinance through radio and print advertising, and in a massive door-to-door campaign gathered almost 1500 signatures of citizens opposed to zoning. One member noted that "it was amazing, because everywhere I went people were telling me how much they disliked this thing, we didn't need it before and didn't need it now". Supervisors dismissed the signatures as "not a majority" and eventually adopted the ordinance, although the public hearing prior to its adoption once again showed that a solid majority of the public was in opposition.
Once the ordinance was in place, enforcement of trivial details resulted in ridiculous rulings, such as rural residents being forced to change the design of their machine sheds because they were a few inches too tall. Aided immeasurably by such rulings, Free County worked to keep the issue in the public eye.
As 2011 neared an end, the three supervisors who had voted in favor of zoning were all up for re-election, although the poor health of one left his future in doubt. Anti-zoning candidates emerged in each district, often in both parties. The day after the primary it became very clear that the majority of the voters truly did not want zoning, as all pro-zoning candidates were defeated. The general election was almost anti-climactic as most of the candidates opposed zoning. One incumbent chose to run as an independent, using as part of his platform that he favored zoning, apparently oblivious of the fact that the voters were definitely not in support of zoning. Three new supervisors were elected, all on the platform of ending zoning.
Once the new supervisors were in office, they began the process of re-evaluating the ordinance. Carefully following the County Attorney's instructions, they directed the Planning & Zoning Commission to make a report on what should be done. P&Z dutifully reported that the ordinance should be kept, and the supervisors held yet another hearing in which the majority of the public opposed the ordinance. Finally, a draft ordinance to repeal the zoning ordinance was hammered out and adopted, and with barely a whimper zoning became a 3 year bad memory for Washington County. Free County continues to work to increase public awareness of freedom issues.