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Washington County officials would like to figure out a way to stop getting sued, especially successfully.

They can hardly be blamed. Being the subject of litigation is no fun and it's costly.

What’s the point?

The path to keeping Washington County out of litigation may be more specificity in its planning requirements, and residents may not want that.

Government agencies exist, to some degree, to say "yes" or "no" to requests from individuals or business ventures within the confines of the government's regulatory structures.

In Washington County, this friction often arises in the arena of land use in the unincorporated areas -- that is, the mostly rural areas that exist outside any city's limits. Land in those areas are "zoned" either for agricultural uses or single-family residential uses. Anything not fitting into those categories requires conditional-use permits.

That's where the county's Planning Board comes in. That panel of appointed citizens attempts to apply rules established by the elected Quorum Court as they evaluate the compatibility of a proposed land use. Those proposals might come in the form of red dirt mines, wedding venues, event facilities or dog kennels, to name a few.

Decisions at the Planning Board level are sometimes appealed by an aggrieved party -- the landowner or a neighbor -- to the 15-member Quorum Court. Once the Quorum Court makes a decision, the next step for someone who disagrees is a lawsuit.

A recent dispute involving an events venue took nearly three years to resolve in the courts and, according to the county attorney, cost the county -- i.e., taxpayers -- more than $20,000. One can only imagine what a landowner has to pay for legal representation in such disputes. Both costs ought to be a concern for elected officials.

"We get these appeals to the Quorum Court, and we have a room full of people," said Carl Gales, chief of staff for County Judge Joseph Wood. "If the JPs decide one way, half the room is happy and the other half isn't. We've gotten to where we're going to be sued by one side or the other no matter what we decide. It's not normal."

Zoning in unincorporated areas is not as robust as it is in most cities, nor should it be. Most rural areas do not need strict rules that would make rural living difficult. But at the heart of the county's likelihood for being sued is the almost universal desire of rural residents to "live free or die" -- that is, to be left alone by county government -- and the resulting lack of specificity in county zoning regulations. In other words, there seems to be a lot of subjectivity in decision-making, and that doesn't always hold up in court.

Rural folks ultimately appreciate room to marshal their neighbors and put political pressure on the Quorum Court, at least when they win the day. But when that victory is based on vague decision-making, in which 15 members of the Quorum Court can have 15 different reasons for voting, that spells potential success for someone who appeals to a court.

What's the solution? As with most regulatory schemes, specificity works best. It is in vagueness that litigation finds the oxygen it needs to flare.

The question is, will members of the Quorum Court, and their constituents, be able to stomach such specificity when most of the time, they're content to endorse a laissez-faire approach to county planning?

Commentary on 05/29/2019

Print Headline: Don't tread on me

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