First you plan–then ignore the plan

Planning, most people will agree, is a good thing. It’s how we prepare for the future, allocate resources, ensure that we meet our goals. It’s the parable of the grasshopper and the ant, the latter working hard to store food for the winter, the former frittering his time away when the weather is good and starving when it isn’t. Those who plan are prudent and responsible, those who don’t are flighty and short-sighted .

Or, sometimes, they’re developers.

The latest case in point is Carteret County in coastal North Carolina, which just one year ago adopted a comprehensive zoning and land-use plan to get a handle on the county’s rapid growth—then quickly lost its grip. This past Monday the county commissioners voted 5-1 to allow development of a sizable RV park and campground on 156 acres that up to that moment had been set aside for single-family homes. Nearby homeowners, who had never expected to be living next to a recreational playground, are less than pleased.

While the rezoning was legally permissible, the rationale for gouging a hole in a 190-page plan still warm from the oven was nothing more than cold, hard cash. Whatever thought had gone into designating this particular tract as most suitable for residential development was swept aside by the alluring speculation that an RV park would have a positive economic impact on the area. True, an RV park would generate less in real estate taxes than would a subdivision, but its visitors would support local businesses and so would indirectly increase tax revenues—or so went the argument.

Wouldn’t the residents of a subdivision also support local businesses? Apparently, that depends. As reported by the Carteret County News-Times, Bob Lowery, owner of a nearby speedway, said “the type of people who would use the [RV] development attend races, while most of the [existing] nearby residents don’t.” So Bob, at least, saw an upside in upending zoning constraints, even though his unsubstantiated economic forecast rested uneasily next to the equally fanciful claim by a local realtor that the new RV park “would encourage more quality development” in the area.

As it happens, the realtor offering that upbeat assessment was Richard Farrington, brother of Carteret County Commission chairman Jimmy Farrington. Jimmy Farrington is, in turn, a long-time local landscaper—and a partner in Dirt2Dreams, LLC, the development company that wants to build the RV park in question. Moreover, Dirt2Dreams, although only two years in existence, already has its finger in several other large local projects, including an 82-acre waterfront residential property and a 67-acre commercial property near the RV park.

It must be noted that Farrington has recused himself from all of the commission’s votes on these various projects—indeed, he wasn’t even present at the meeting Monday, at which he might have heard some of the vociferous objections to his RV park proposal. At the same time, only the village idiot would think that the rest of the commission was uninfluenced by Farrington’s very considerable economic interests.

Indeed, this sort of clash between people with big ideas and local residents with limited means to resist them are all too depressingly familiar. The latter all too often place their trust in local government and in the plans it’s crafted to guide growth and create some common set of expectations. But what are they to do when the government is run by developers, and when land-use plans are little more than Play-Doh suggestions, to be reworked into whatever shape the developers find most advantageous?

It’s also becoming all too common that such reworking is at the hands of people who’ve decided that the cheapest, fastest way to develop land sometimes is to build an RV park and campground—and the bigger the better. Two hundred, 250, 300 or more sites are all the rage these days, and raging against them by local residents has become quite commonplace as well. Sometimes the latter succeed: a 132-acre RV park proposed for Lake Anna in Virginia, for example, is instead being readied for 40 single-family homes following a groundswell of local opposition. In other instances, however, the two sides buckle down for a long war of attrition, as with the Pequot casino proposal in Connecticut for a 280-site park, or the Kentucky mega-facility known as the Bluegrass Experience Resort.

In these and other cases, zoning and other planning restrictions have thrown sand into the developers’ gears. But money, and the promise of money, are powerful lubricants.

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Author: Andy Zipser

A former newspaper reporter who worked at a variety of newspapers, from small community weeklies to The Wall Street Journal, I finished my "normal" work life as the editor of The Guild Reporter, official publication of the union representing newspaper workers. On retiring, I and my wife bought a campground in the Shenandoah Valley and--with the help of our two daughters and their husbands--operated it for eight years, first as a KOA franchisee and then as an independent family-owned RV park. We sold the campground in May, 2021, and live in Staunton, Virginia, a short walk from our grandsons' home.

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