Windy, with a chance of bribes


Zoning by law or by special interest

The Zoning Law of 2013 has provisions for rezoning areas as needed. A lot, for example, that is surrounded by commercial zoning but is zoned for residential or rural (probably an oversight) can be rezoned by a request from the owner if the Zoning board approves at a public hearing. There are many other conditions and unusual circumstances that might warrant a rezoning hearing. That is a reasonable way to make sure no property is improperly zoned for its highest appropriate use and gives everyone a chance to speak out in favor or in opposition in a public forum.

One thing that is absolutely prohibited is “spot zoning.” That is where the property example above is a residential lot surrounded by other residential lots and its owner wants to open a business and wants the lot rezoned as commercial. You can see the problem with that. So the Zoning office would not even set a hearing for a spot zoning hearing. Now suppose the owner has some special influence and calls up one of his legislator buddies to get the job done under the table.

It happens, yes it does. A legislator, swayed by the special interest of one person, can legislatively change the zoning of that one lot. This is so blatant a corruption of the intended use of the Legislature’s power that I don’t need to belabor the point. Sadly, it happens all too often. Here is a case where the rule of law is corrupted by the very institution that makes the laws.

Here is an example: a couple of years ago a woman wanted to open a business in CK. It was a business not allowed according to the zoning law. Every single neighbor within 300 feet (100 yards) was notified. All of them protested, saying this business was wrong for the neighborhood including other businesses that said having that kind of business was bad for everybody’s business. The woman was specially connected, she got a legislator to introduce a bill that spot zoned and allowed that obviously incompatible use in this village commercial area from which it was originally banned. At the Zoning hearing the sponsor of the bill and the guy from Guam selling the equipment to the woman were in favor of allowing it. Most everyone else was against it, including all the residential and commercial neighbors. She got her way and that business is up and running to this day. Law be damned, neighbors be damned. What the neighbors get, other than the shaft, is the fumes.

Want another example? Last week a legislator sent an official communication to the Zoning board asking them to fully support putting a moratorium on all B&Bs that would apply in the future, thus not allowing any new ones, no matter how good or bad. The lawmaker did not know the law in this instance because it forbids the Zoning Office or Zoning board from making any such moratorium. That would have to be a legislative function. The fact that the good folks over at Finance and Commerce haven’t gotten around to finding all the guest house/B&B cheaters that don’t pay their taxes does not make it reasonable or legal for zoning to stop hearing license applications. They should go find ‘em and collect those taxes with penalties and look forward to new ones that will bring revenue that will pay their salaries.

Ready for the punchline? The Zoning office only got two official communications last month. The one mentioned above looking to outlaw new B&Bs and one from a legislator asking Zoning’s support for a spot zoning law he wants to pass to allow (you guessed it) a B&B to be put in a Garapan area where it was illegal and he wants to rezone that lot by legislation so the new B&B can start business right away. By now you’ve guessed again that it is the same legislator who wrote both letters. Hahahahhahah. Everybody at that meeting either broke up or hid their face and broke up behind their hand. I laughed out loud.

So what’s so wrong about legislative spot zoning? Because the motives to act against the law by enacting a law that overrides it for just one self-interested owner are hard to pin down. Did the legislator owe that person a favor? Did that person have something on the legislator? Did he just out and out take a bribe under the table for the “favor”? Was he just being a nice guy? Who knows? At the very best, it looks, smells and acts like collusion for profit. At its very worst, it is actually true and the specially-favored person and the legislator whose palm was greased needs to be in the Iron Bar Motel for a while. Most legislators would never think of doing such a thing, but there are a few who will.

Russian visa waiver gone with the wind

The Department of Homeland Security secretary signed it into being with the flip of a pen and he/she can sign it away for any reason or no reason. It’s called “executive fiat”—sort of like a Lancia, but a lot cheaper.

The visa waiver or “parole in place” process meant that Russian citizens no longer had to travel long distances to apply for a visa, go back again to be interviewed and finally get a visa to come to the CNMI for a vacation. There are only three offices in all of Russia to get that visa. Few came. With the ability to travel without the hassle and cost of getting a visa, thousands came. Then direct charter flights were organized and we were on our way to see 20,000 Russian visitors annually when the bottom dropped out of the Russian economy and the ruble was worth a third as many dollars as before. Travel agencies and airlines went under and the CNMI Russian tourism industry went from boom to bust in under a year.

We should be happy it lasted as long as it did. Russian tourists stay long and spend a lot and they are nice people. That’s good for the industry and good for the CNMI’s bottom line. They love our clean air and water and know they are just a few hours away from a nice warm climate when they are freezing at home. Sadly, only a few will come again now. We will welcome every one of them.

We better hope the Chinese DHS parole/visa waiver doesn’t disappear too. China has become our No. 1 market this fiscal year. Its loss would devastate what remains of the economy here in the CNMI as nearly half of all the tourists that come here are now from China.
Thanks for reading Sour Grapes!


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