Envision Jefferson risks being short-sighted

To cite a Robert Burns poem written in 1785: “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry and leave us nothing but grief and pain, for promised joy. In the lyric from John Lennon’s song “Beautiful Boy,” — one of the last songs he ever wrote — is one of my favorite quotes: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

Jefferson County has a Comprehensive Plan and it is in the process of being updated as required by state law. In the West Virginia Code, chapter 8A is entitled Land Use Planning. According to Article 3 of that Chapter, once a county adopts a Comprehensive Plan it must be updated every 10 years, and our updates are due next year.

Envision Jefferson 2035 is the name that has been given to the process of updating the County’s Comprehensive Plan. State law requires public input regarding Plan revisions. A steering committee has been appointed by the County Commission to facilitate that process and there are some really good people on it.

So then, what is a Comprehensive Plan? According to the code, “The general purpose of a comprehensive plan is to guide a governing body to accomplish a coordinated and compatible development of land and improvements within its territorial jurisdiction, in accordance with present and future needs and resources.”

It further states it “must promote the health, safety, morals, order, convenience, prosperity and general welfare of the inhabitants, as well as efficiency and economy in the process of development.” There’s a lot more to it and I heartily recommend that you go online and read Chapter 8A in the state Code, as well as the Jefferson County Comprehensive Plan.

With regard to land use, there are instances where it may be appropriate to impose restrictions. For example, community standards might call for certain businesses not to be allowed to operate near a school. I get that. However, land use planning by a governing body “in accordance with present and future needs and resources” raises some fundamental issues.

Respect for property rights is a cornerstone of civilization and is essential for maintaining and raising standards of living. I have questions about the ability of a “governing body” to determine with accuracy “present and future needs and resources.”

That’s what markets are for. When a governing body intervenes, there are often unintended consequences. For example, local zoning regulations have made it difficult for entrepreneurs to start home-based businesses.

I also have reservations about Envision Jefferson 2035 (I would consider myself fortunate if I still have my vision in 2035). Is it possible that we can all have a shared collective vision of what Jefferson County will be like in the year 2035? A lot can happen in 21 years and the Comprehensive Plan is revisited every 10 years.

But past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Take, for instance, population growth. While the population of our county grew rapidly during the previous decade, the compound rate of population growth from 2000 until today is still less than 2 percent annualized. If that compound rate were to continue, the population of our county would be around 75,000 in the year 2035. However, there are trends that suggest that people are moving closer to where their jobs are and, unfortunately, those jobs for the most part are not in Jefferson County. Only 30 percent of the people who live here work here. And by the way, there are currently a lot of empty houses in Jefferson County.

Fortunately, the Comprehensive Plan does not carry the force of law. However, it does provide a framework that guides the actions of the Planning Commission. The first round of Envision Jefferson 2035 workshops ends this week. There are other workshops scheduled over the next 14 months. Once the plan is updated, it will not be revisited for another 10 years. Property rights are important. Let your voice be heard.

— Elliot Simon writes from Harpers Ferry.

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