Is zoning in the cards for The Plains or Athens Twp.?

Renewed call for zoning in The Plains spurs discussions, though opposition is expected

By Kayla Beard

Click here for the original story in the Athens News


Some residents in The Plains recently have expressed a desire for mild zoning regulations, something that has long been opposed by many residents of The Plains and other unincorporated areas outside of Athens, according to Athens Township Trustee Eddie Smith.

The renewed interest in zoning compelled Smith to propose a resolution at the Trustees’ last meeting that would establish a zoning commission to come up with a plan for what zoning would look like in The Plains, and potentially in all of Athens Township.

“There’s no legal way to adopt a zoning plan that’s not approved by the voters,” Smith said at the meeting June 26. If the resolution were passed by the trustees and a zoning commission was formed, that commission would hold public meetings and establish a plan for zoning. It then would require approval by voters in the “area to be regulated,” according to Athens Township Trustee Steve Pierson.

Without the resolution, community members can petition to establish zoning regulations, according to the Trustees. If residents can collect 70 valid signatures from fellow residents in the township, a signed petition would be enough to compel the Board of Trustees to establish a zoning commission that would hold public meetings, after which a zoning plan would still need the approval of a majority of The Plains residents voting on the measure.

Smith argued at the meeting that the process for establishing zoning laws, which is long and tedious, would be easier and simpler if the Trustees passed the resolution and establish the commission first, rather than waiting for petition signatures.

“If we are going to put something forward before the voters, the way I want to do that is the way that’s actually going to get it there,” Smith said, arguing that a petition likely would fail if zoning advocates didn’t first have an idea to pitch to residents about what zoning in the area might look like.

“You take the seven people who care most about that issue and you appoint them to the zoning commission,” Smith said. “They come up with their best plan, and that’s the plan that goes before the voters.”

Pierson, who has been a zoning inspector for 24 years in Athens County, said zoning regulations are not simple to establish. “You can just zone in a portion of the township,” Pierson said, so if the zoning commission decided to establish zoning only in The Plains, that would be possible but could create some legal problems. “You could be accused of, essentially, a type of spot zoning. You’re regulating land here; you’re not regulating it over here,” Pierson said, adding that it would be best to establish regulations township-wide rather than just in The Plains.

In the past, the idea of zoning has been heavily opposed by residents in The Plains and other areas throughout the township, the trustees acknowledged. “People either want it or they don’t,” Pierson said.

A liaison for the Ohio Township Association “recommended that we use a consultant to go through this process,” Pierson said at the meeting. “… There’s a lot of legal requirements; there’s public hearings involved. You have to have a commission; you have to have a board of zoning appeals; you have to come up with a plan; you have to come up with a map. This takes quite a bit of time.”

Community members who attended the meeting expressed concerns, some saying that a petition should be taken to the voters first before the commission is formed to more accurately gauge how many people in the township want zoning.

One person noted that the idea of zoning has been rejected in the past but that times are different now. Another resident noted that “back in the day” no zoning in the Plains was a great thing, but now more issues are at play. Property values are in jeopardy, several people acknowledged.

“We want some very minimal, common-sense solutions to someone putting nine trailers on five lots with four feet in between them,” one person said.

Without a concrete way of presenting those ideas, voters may hear the word “zoning” and shut down the idea completely, several people agreed.

“I don’t know that I would sign a petition saying ‘Oh, I’d like to vote on this,’ if I don’t quite see what proposed regulations or zoning we’re talking about,” Smith said.

Athens Township Trustee Ted Linscott said he empathizes with people who don’t want zoning. “If I want to put a building or a shed in the backyard, then I should be able to do that,” Linscott said. “I get both sides of it.” Linscott said he’s spoken to people with complaints that could be addressed by zoning laws, but once the word “zoning” comes up, people want nothing to do with it.

There seems to be some confusion over what zoning refers to and what it would look like in the township, several people agreed.

“The people need to understand what they’re getting into,” Linscott said, adding that voters should be made aware, if asked to sign a petition, that taxes would increase, also, if zoning regulations were established.

Pierson said zoning isn’t the only way to address some residents’ concerns. “You could incorporate… maybe consider The Plains to be a village,” Pierson said.

On another note, Pierson pointed out that the Athens County Commissioners can do the same thing that the township trustees can do. “They would do it countywide… That’s not real high on their political priorities list to do this,” Pierson acknowledged.

Smith said the issue has historically been passed between the county Commissioners and the township trustees. “I think we have to be leaders in this room and do something and put this on the ballot,” instead of “passing the buck” back to the Commissioners, Smith said.

Athens County Commissioner Chris Chmiel conceded late last month that zoning is “a politically sensitive issue,” which is why it’s been avoided. “Elected officials have tended to stay away from the topic,” Chmiel said. “There’s a similar situation with the Commissioners.”

The unincorporated parts of the county don’t have zoning regulations because the county doesn’t, Chmiel explained, adding that we live in a part of the state where there’s not much zoning outside of densely populated areas. The Plains is a densely populated area, however, and may benefit more from zoning than other areas in the county, he said.

“Anytime you’re trying to do something new, you have to have a lot of education about the costs and benefits,” Chmiel said. “I know there’s people upset around the county about the way that people keep their places. Seems like most people are interested in zoning for their neighbor’s property… but then most people don’t want someone else telling them what to do on their property.”

Chmiel said, “Just because we haven’t done it yet doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done,” adding that Athens County Regional Planning Commission meetings are a good place to bring up concerns regarding zoning regulations.

The conversation about zoning in Athens Township will continue at the next Board of Township Trustees meeting this Tuesday at 5:30 p.m.