With the recent adoption of two new amendments to the Ocracoke Development Ordinance (ODO), one regulating the use of travel trailers as full-time residences and the second regulating outdoor sales, there has been a growing conversation on the island about land use regulations.
People feel strongly about land use laws, and rightfully so, as perhaps no other type of regulation so directly pits individual rights against community benefits. Some argue in favor of individual rights, saying, “Any law that limits me in the use of my land is nothing more than the government taking away my rights and the value of my property.” On the other side are those who argue that, “no one should be allowed to do anything that significantly diminishes our quality of life or decreases the value of my property even when they are doing it on their own land.”
In fact, both sides of the argument have been made in courts all across America in an array of differing circumstances. And case law upholds both positions, saying, in effect, that land use regulation is legal and appropriate, but it must reflect a long-term community benefit and it must enjoy the support of most of those subject to the regulation. By allowing land use law, but at the same time restricting it, the courts have created a complicated structure that is often reshaped and reinterpreted.
Unfortunately, Ocracoke has only blunt tools to assure that our regulation (the ODO) and its amendments meet these tests. By state law, our regulation must reflect a county land-use plan. Because we are a coastal county, that plan must be prepared in cooperation with, and be approved by the Division of Coastal Management. It is referred to as the CAMA Core Land Use Plan. Our Planning Advisory Board is charged with representing the “pulse” of the community and making recommendations to the County Commissioners. And it is the Commissioners who ultimately have the power to adopt and amend land use regulations for Ocracoke. The Commissioners’ only requirement to seek input is to hold a single public hearing before voting on a new regulation or amendment.
I like to think of land use regulation in the context of that old piece of wisdom, “Good fences make good neighbors.” Properly constructed land use regulation is like a good fence – it clearly delineates boundaries and it protects the properties on both sides. Achieving a good land use regulation for Ocracoke should be a high priority for the County Commissioners. The current ODO is unclear and so full of conflicting language that it is difficult to enforce. In addition, the ODO needs to be regularly updated to adapt to changing circumstances such as the growth of outdoor sales, which was a non-issue when the ODO was drafted in 1986.
Over the past couple of years the Planning Board had set a new precedent in inviting public input into its deliberations. The Board’s meetings were open to public comment throughout the meeting and when there was specific text being considered for an amendment, the public was urged to join in and express their feelings with enthusiasm. Sometimes that enthusiasm looked like anger and the Board rightfully listened and kept those concerns in mind throughout the process of drafting language. I hope the Board will continue in that way.
But even more importantly, the Commissioners and the Planning Board and the community at large must begin to see land use regulation as a way to shape Ocracoke’s future. The Planning Board is named because it is meant to plan for the future, not just react to the past. As a community, we have a responsibility to identify and preserve Ocracoke’s most valuable assets, those things that create our unique character as a historic island fishing village, those things that motivate visitors to drive hundreds of miles to come here as tourists.
Land use regulation should reflect as much community input as possible and when it does, it need not be seen as something to fear and despise. With an open and inclusive process, the creation of a new and better ODO can be an opportunity to combine our wisdom to create a prosperous Ocracoke that we’ll be proud to leave to our children and grandchildren.
Former Chairman of the Planning Board