Total Deregulation

Zoning rebellion in Georgia


Who says deregulation is dead? In December, Habersham County, Georgia, abolished all its land use regulations, fired all its building inspectors, and eliminated its planning commission. "We're going to see if people truly need to be regulated," Commissioner Jerry Tanksley explained to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

It's unclear, though, whether the experiment will last. The Home Builders Association of Habersham and White counties filed suit almost immediately, arguing that the county commission didn't have the power to eliminate zoning laws. A Mountain Circuit judge agreed and promptly ordered the county to enforce the abandoned rules. A newly elected county commission hopes to undo the rest of the December revolution by spring.

The regulatory rollback followed years of battles between small landholders and outside regulators, dating back to the Georgia Planning Act of 1989—and, on a larger scale, to the days of the 19th-century mountain men. One hot issue was Atlanta's efforts to require a minimum distance between streams and construction projects. The problem was not the rule's immediate impact: The law didn't apply to farmers, who still constitute a substantial portion of the Habersham population—and were nonetheless up in arms. The problem was that outsiders were telling the county what to do, angering a citizenry that prized both local self-government and individual property rights.

Others saw more sinister motives afoot. County Manager Ron Vandiver told the Atlanta weekly Creative Loafing that the rules were "meant to divide, make groups easier to bend to their submission: control, rather than protection." Conspiracy theories circulated among the citizens, prompting some to fear that the current battles were a prelude to a U.N. land grab.

Last November, however, the populists lost at the polls. One county commissioner associated with the rebellion lost his seat; another did not run for re-election. Both were replaced by politicians better disposed toward regulation, prompting the lame-duck commission to pass its wholesale repeal—a farewell present of sorts for the friends of government planning.