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Zoning for fun and profit

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There's every reason to hate zoning. It's really boring. The language is impenetrable. Decisions involve long, interminable meetings and arcane regulations that usually mean discussing things that aren't even there yet. It's difficult to have a sane argument about something when the moment you say it's going to mean one thing, someone on the other side says it's going to mean something else. And usually, those two sides pit the public interest against people who have lots of money and a powerful interest in getting the zoning they want.

But remember this: Those planning and zoning decisions are about the biggest ones governments make in deciding what your life will be like the moment you walk out the front door. They're a black and white outline of what the Pantone world around you will be. They mean the difference between having a sidewalk and walking in the street. They dictate how comfortable you're going to be in the neighborhoods and shopping centers and office buildings you drive past, shop in and live around. Depending on those planning and zoning decisions, those places can be attractive and accessible, or they can be nightmares. They can make you feel good,, or they can make you mad.

If you don't believe me, ask the members of the Hatteras Civic Association. As Hal Herring, a former fish peddler on the Outer Banks who has written for the Atlantic and the Oxford American, writes this week, the independent spirit of the islands meant people didn't want government telling them what to do with their land. Until, that is, a pair of developers came in to build condos on one of Hatteras Village's most sensitive spots. They found out how important it would have been to write that zoning outline ahead of time.

Or you can ask Robert Olason, who helped create Raleigh's transit system. As Peter Eichenberger explains, after a lifetime planning for buses, Olason has come to the conclusion that if you don't create real cities in which lots of people can walk to the store and to their neighbors' house, then nobody's going to think about taking the bus or the train; they're always just going to get in their cars. His answer: Zone for dense urban neighborhoods in the central city, the way real cities are.

And then there's Carrboro, where something amazing happened: A giant pharmacy chain was foiled when the local co-op grocery grabbed a piece of land at the heart of town and rebuffed the pharmacy's escalating offers to buy it. Now, as Fiona Morgan writes, the community is working together to decide what to put there--maybe a jazz club, a teen center or an independent media center.

As the Triangle grows, we still have the opportunity to avoid past mistakes--as long as we're willing to sit through some interminable meetings and make sure our elected officials know it matters to us--and should matter to them--what the world looks like after we walk out the front door.

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