JAKE VERMEULEN ’21 | STAFF WRITER • When people think about controversial political issues, the ones that typically come to mind include gay marriage, gun rights, abortion, taxation, and environmental protection. The list goes on and on. One issue that frequently gets left off the list, however, is zoning. It is not a sexy issue, but zoning is one
of the most hotly contested (and important) issues at the local level in Montgomery County currently.
Zoning laws help determine what kinds of things can be built where, and most counties in Indiana have some form of zoning laws. Montgomery County does not have any zoning, however, and the County’s ongoing efforts to institute some form of zoning has led to quite a bit of contentious public debate.
Many people view zoning as essential for economic development. They believe it is easier to convince a business to open up or a family to buy a home if they know what is going to be around them. Others, however, have serious concerns that zoning will restrict what they are able to do with their property. They view it as a potential government overreach that will infringe upon their rights. Both sides of this issue care deeply about it, making this a particularly tricky debate to oversee and promote. That’s exactly the job that Wabash students have stepped into, however.
During the course of this semester, the Wabash Democracy and Public Discourse Initiative has been actively involved in facilitating this debate. There is a long and complicated process that has to be followed in order to pass zoning, beginning with compiling a comprehensive plan, which can take up to a year.
As Montgomery County begins compiling this plan, The WDPD has been holding focus groups and public deliberations to get public input on what should go into that comprehensive plan. Eventually, the WDPD will submit a report on their findings that addresses all the different viewpoints members of the community have expressed.
While they have no political agenda, WDPD is focused squarely on promoting civil debate about an issue that is remarkably contentious. When asked about their goals, Senior Democracy Fellow Ben Johnson ’18 said, “we want people to come out, voice their opinions, feel free to say whatever they want about the matter, and—hopefully—do it in
a civil manner.” He told us that it does not matter what kind of feedback they get, but they want to make sure members of the community have an opportunity to put in their feedback.
The WDPD focuses on the facilitation of civil debate and, as Dr. Michael Bergmaier, the WDPD Coordinator, said, “the promotion of quality discourse.” This work has given Democracy Fellows the opportunity to work on complex issues like zoning and given them experience, as Johnson told us, “balancing different stakeholders and working in a lot of ambiguity,” skills which he believes will pay off in his endeavors after Wabash.
The WDPD has further public discourse tentatively scheduled for March 21st at Southmont High School and welcomes members of the Wabash and the Crawfordsville community to come and provide their input on zoning in Montgomery County. There will also be a number of OneWabash, which Dr. Bergmaier said will be, “about how we see ourselves and how we see others on campus.”