Decatur’s regulations could use a lot more ‘user-friendly’

By Roy J. Eaton | Published Wednesday, October 24, 2012

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A word of unsolicited advice for the Decatur Planning and Zoning Subcommittee members who are now doing a new 161-page zoning ordinance for the city. Be very careful of the danger of unintended consequences.

Roy J. Eaton

In today’s political climate there is a popular uprising against layer after layer of government regulations. That is a huge danger for those studying these proposed regulations.

New regulations are not the intention of Decatur Planning Director Dedra Ragland. In a memorandum to the subcommittee, Ragland said the goal is to make the document more “user friendly” and to “increase the ease of navigation” for those who must work with it.

It’s important to note that this document does not pertain to the city’s building codes, an often baffling set of rules enforced by Ragland’s department through the city’s building inspectors.

In addition, Ragland also oversees the city’s food inspectors, whose job it is to inspect restaurants and grocery stores for compliance on sanitation issues. Those inspectors also occasionally show up at public functions to make sure the barbecue and or hamburgers are cooked to perfection.

Justified or not, Decatur has the reputation of being a hard place to do business. In an interesting twist, the “big box” retailers who come to town seem to have no problem with the local regulations, but local business and homeowners become very upset with what they consider the confusing maze of regulations.

It’s important to remember that the Decatur City Council has adopted a version of a national building code that is used by cities all over the nation. It is also used by the city of Bridgeport and perhaps other Wise County cities as well.

That being the case, why does Decatur have the reputation of being “hard to do business with” and Bridgeport does not? Beats me, but perhaps some attitudes need work along with the zoning ordinance.

Ragland said in her memo to the subcommittee that the document they are studying is a “complete re-write of most of the ordinance, rather than updating individual sections.” That sounds like a good idea – clean up the whole mess at one time, not just piecemeal. Even the definitions section has been updated and reorganized to be more “user-friendly.”

Apparently also on the table is an effort by Main Street Director Frieda Haley to develop new building and design standards for the downtown historic area. The impetus for that was a debate over the color of yellow paint on a downtown building. The property owner voluntarily repainted the building, but Haley said she needed an ordinance to protect the historic district.

If something like that comes into the current ordinance somewhere, that’s one thing. But the last thing we need is another sanctioning body, other than the Planning and Zoning Commission or the Zoning Board of Adjustment, with its finger in the pie when business owners are trying to get something done with their buildings.

I hope the Decatur City Council will take time to study the proposed re-write of the zoning ordinance once the subcommittee and P&Z are finished with it. The tradition of saying “the P&Z approved it, so we should also” is not sufficient for such a wide-ranging “re-do” of how land is used and private property is regulated in Decatur.

One Response to “Decatur’s regulations could use a lot more ‘user-friendly’”

  1. ^sigh* Oh to have our old Decatur back. The Decatur where mom and pop small businesses flourished. A Decatur where there are no buildings taller than 2-3 stories. No unsightly hotels, no (or at least very few) chain fast food joints. Where people personally knew the P&Z commission, as it were, and there was a mutual respect and accountability between both sides. It’s amazing to see the trashiness that is so prevalent around town as I drive around, and be able to believe that building inspectors, zoning committees, etc. actually exist. Where are you Decatur of years gone by? Truthfully, it would be impossible for you to ever return.


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