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Our Opinion: Museum can thrive without strict zoning rules in its shadow

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Remember the last time a momentary glimpse of a modern home in the rearview mirror ruined your visit to the museum down the road?

Of course you don’t; we can’t imagine there’s a solitary person alive who would confuse a neighborhood’s residential lots with the grounds of a curated historical site. Yet the town of Bailey is inordinately concerned with this unlikely scenario.

Bailey has a special zoning district — an overlay in local government jargon — around the Country Doctor Museum to “protect the character of the neighborhood surrounding” the site, as Planning Board Chairman Walter Wells characterized it to commissioners on Monday.

As we reported this week, the district “prohibits the use of certain common materials such as vinyl or metal siding, specifies porch and driveway dimensions and stipulates the minimum number of trees and shrubs that must be planted.”

So much for private property rights.

Homeowners chafe under the zany zoning rules and approach the planning board periodically to ask for variances. Requests have been reasonable; no one wants his or her house to be an eyesore. Neither do people want to fuss over dozens of nonsensical restrictions when building or renovating the place they live on land they own.

Both the planning board and the Bailey Board of Commissioners recognize that the overlay is overzealous. On Monday, commissioners voted to establish a citizen advisory board that can study the rules and suggest revisions.

“In looking at it, the planning board feels that the overlay is a little overbearing based on what’s in there after discussion with the residents who were at the meeting,” Wells told commissioners. “They wanted to see what could be done to modify and make a difference that’s more compatible with the people living there but still provide the atmosphere the Country Doctor Museum is looking for.”

In addition to residents in the affected zoning district and planning board members, the advisory board will include museum representatives. We wonder why they’re so interested in residents’ use of private property. We think their time would be better spent fundraising and planning exhibits.

The Country Doctor Museum, which was donated to the Medical Foundation of East Carolina University in 2003 and is managed by ECU’s Laupus Health Science Library, showcases the history of rural health care in the United States from the late 18th century to the mid-20th century. Artifacts include live leeches, displayed with information on the practice of bloodletting, an early iron lung and antique cars that black bag-bearing physicians drove to their many housecalls.

Now celebrating its 50th anniversary, the museum is a feather in eastern North Carolina’s cap and a tremendous asset to the town of Bailey, which touts itself as “Home of the Country Doctor Museum” on the downtown business district’s water tower. Yet the facility is one of our region’s best-kept secrets, drawing only 2,500 to 3,000 visitors each year.

We’re proud to have the Country Doctor Museum in our backyard, we support its educational mission and we’ll gladly advocate for increased funding through state and federal grants. But when it comes to which building materials Bailey homeowners can use or how many trees they ought to plant, we don’t see why the museum should care.

Would attendance plummet and donations dry up if nearby homeowners could use vinyl siding? Such a silly proposition doesn’t pass the smell test. Let’s encourage the museum to refocus itself on sharing its story with the region and avoid using the levers of local government to boss its neighbors around.

Bailey already has townwide zoning regulations in place; the overlay district merely layers rules on top of rules. Repealing the overlay in its entirety would hardly transform the area into an anything-goes oasis of permissiveness. It would merely stop the current practice of putting homeowners under a microscope because they happen to live near the museum.

The new citizen advisory board’s first meeting should be its last. Instead of carefully tweaking the rules, this panel ought to run them through the paper shredder.

Stakeholders should recommend dissolving the overlay, the museum should decline to express an opinion on the use of other people’s property and the Bailey town board should quickly agree so it can turn its attention to weightier matters.

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