County Zoning

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 26, 2008

Introduction of county zoning survives decade of detractors

By Billy Davis

“I think we’re ready to go,” professional planner Bob Barber advised Panola County supervisors 10 years ago.

Barber was referring to an ambitious plan for a rural Mississippi county – and a political gamble for supervisors –to implement zoning in unincorporated Panola County.

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Even if Panola County wasn’t ready for such progress, the plan was moving forward anyway, first with a steering committee called Progress Panola then with a permanent 10-person land commission.

Recalling those early months, Barber credited supervisors for withstanding public outcry and sticking to their plan to implement land-use standards.

“By doing what they did, supervisors moved Panola County light years ahead in the matter of public health and safety, and of property values,” he said in an interview last week.

Barber said one of the first land-use regulations addressed rural sewer systems. Most rural homes rely on a septic tank for disposal of waste, but many old or poorly planned sewage systems spewed sewage onto the ground and on to adjoining property.

To ensure the new sewer systems worked properly, supervisors approved a one-acre minimum lot size for new homes. The Miss. Department of Health inspects new sewer systems, and the lot-size requirement complements that inspection, he said.

The zoning rules also created minimum construction standards for private-owned roads, Barber recalled.

“What was happening was sub-standard roads were being built and then supervisors were being asked to accept them as a public road,” Barber said.

Over time the land-use standards moved to a new phase: land-use ordinances. These new county rules regulated subdivision developments, allowing the 10-member commission to ensure that developers followed county requirements for road construction, lot sizes, and proper entrances. Because of the subdivision rules, a plat of the subdivision is submitted for approval by the land commission.  

The land-use ordinance also required a permit process for opening a business. Plans for country stores, a helicopter pad, pool hall, daycare center, an adult bookstore, asphalt plants, and scrap metal yards have come before the commission over the years.

Given a job to oversee a list of land-use standards, the commission has met every month for almost a decade, moving between the courthouses in Batesville and Sardis during the second Monday of the month.

Each meeting follows the same method: commissioners hold a public hearing to hear the applicant, then field comments from the public. When the public hearing is closed, commissioners discuss the application then hold an up or down vote on allowing a country store, asphalt plant, or other commercial business.

In zoning laws a change from agriculture to commercial is a blanket allowance, so the commission looks more favorably at requests for a “special exception” application. The special exception permit allows a business to operate while the property remains zoned as agricultural.

The commission’s vote is technically a recommendation forwarded to the Board of Supervisors, but supervisors have rarely second-guessed the commission.  

Most applicants request a “special exception” application, which protects the property from a more lenient zoning allowance.

The commission has been chaired since it began by Batesville resident Danny Walker, an engineer now retired from the Miss. Department of Transportation.

Barber serves as a consultant, and Batesville attorney Colmon Mitchell currently serves as counsel for the commission.

The permitting process begins with permit clerk Diane Stewart, a county employee who attends the monthly meetings.

Despite its years of work, the commission’s decisions probably go unnoticed by the public, said Walker.

“For the most part we’re not highly visible,” Walker said. “Most people I know don’t realize I’m on the commission.”

If the land commission considers itself invisible, it received the most attention ever in December 2003.

When an applicant sought to open an adult bookstore just east of Batesville, the community revolted and packed the courtroom.

“They sat in the jury box and stood in the hallway. It went on for hours,” Walker remembered.

Faced with overwhelming opposition, the opponent withdrew his request, and the courtroom burst into applause.

“That store would be there now without the zoning,” said Kevin Crofford, pastor of Sardis Lake Baptist Church, who attended the meeting.

Former county supervisor Dennis Lott said he was a leading proponent of zoning despite opposition from neighbors and friends. Protecting property values was a main reason for the new rules, he said.

“I don’t have anything against mobile homes, but nobody wants to build a half-million home without being assured that a trailer park won’t be built next to it,” Lott said.

“I think people understand what we were trying to do and appreciate it. I hope they do,” Lott added.

Other supervisors who voted for the land-use rules were Robert Avant, Jessie Lyons, Harold Renfro and Calvin Land.

According to Stewart, the grumbling she heard from applicants has since quieted down.

“I still get complaints, but most people are glad to keep a juke joint away from opening near their home,” she said.