Diane Schwenke Column December 14, 2008

Public votes on zoning discourage investment

You cannot read a newspaper, listen to the radio or turn on the television these days without hearing about layoffs, foreclosures and the evaporation of retirement accounts.  All of that economic uncertainty has caused consumers to close their wallets and put off major investments.

Businesses are susceptible to the same phenomenon, which is why the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce has jumped into the fray regarding the zoning of the Brady Trucking property.

The chamber board in October voted to oppose any effort to drive zoning decisions by ballot.

It is an important distinction that this decision, while encompassing the Brady situation, is more inclusive than that.

While the perceived conflict between industrial and public use of the riverfront is, for many people, the main “event” and worthy of some discussion in its own right, it is also important to take a step back and look at the implications of the petition process currently under way in the city.

For the chamber board, the petition effort to change the decision made by City Council to zone the Brady property for industrial and industrial office use is an economic development and business-climate issue. Businesses, like individuals, need a degree of certainty in order to invest and grow in a community. It simply is not enough to have an adequate infrastructure, trained workforce and a suitable site. Any business that contemplates expansion or locating a new facility needs to know that if the rules are followed, it will be allowed to build.

With zoning decisions subject to voting by city residents, the message we send as a community is that, regardless of how well a business may comply with the already rigorous requirements of the development process, it might still be challenged at the ballot box. That may lead to the business also having to wage a full-blown political campaign to convince city residents that what it wants to do in a particular location is good for everyone.

A business like Brady, which has already invested close to $300,000 and three years in trying to get this project off the ground, would likely decide to not take the risk in the first place — opting instead to take its jobs and capital investment elsewhere.

There are even broader implications for any effort to plan for community growth if petitions that designate zoning are allowed to continue. In recent “Listening to Business” interviews with the private sector, “community-wide planning efforts” were identified as a major concern. That is not surprising in light of how much money these companies have invested in the Grand Valley.

Defining how the community grows, where it intends to put future industrial, commercial and residential uses and where the public sector’s future investment in infrastructure is placed are the goals of the city’s comprehensive planning process. Being able to rely on the roadmap that emerges from this process will be seriously jeopardized if a group of neighborhood residents, affected by the “Not in My Backyard” syndrome — or NIMBY— chooses to ask voters to overturn such community plans. Indeed, in the Brady case, the land was zoned heavy industrial when it was in the county and shown as industrial in the current city growth plan and the most recent draft of the comprehensive plan.

Our government structure already has a series of checks and balances in place to ensure fairness in decision making by our elected leaders. If one thinks there has been a miscarriage of justice in a zoning dispute, there is the option to appeal the decision through the court system.  If one dislikes the decisions of elected leaders then the option already exists to recall them or elect new ones at the next regularly scheduled election.

But asking voters to decide such matters adds an element of uncertainty and discourages community planning and business investments during a time when we are in particular need of both.

Diane Schwenke is president and CEO of the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce. On behalf of the chamber, she recently filed a protest over the citizens’ petitions regarding the Brady Trucking decision.


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