When local government goes viral

Johnson County officials address zoning requests throughout the year, without much fanfare. Thursday night was different.

Grant Schultz, who works a 143-acre plot of land on Strawbridge Road, near the tiny village of Morse, hoped to spur agritourism and bring in more farmworkers by rezoning about half the property as AR, or agricultural residential. He made application to the county, indicating that he wanted to install about three dozen cabins on the property, in addition to a fish farm and orchard.

He and county planning officials disagreed. Ultimately the county’s planning and zoning commission rendered its decision, sending the matter before supervisors with a unanimous recommendation to refuse Schultz’s rezoning request.

This is when an otherwise local zoning matter drew national and international attention.

A typically routine rezoning request in Johnson County created a national and international stir after the applicant posted a 25-minute video on social media, the county responded in a memo and property owners provided photos and an online blog post.
A typically routine rezoning request in Johnson County created a national and international stir after the applicant posted a 25-minute video on social media, the county responded in a memo and property owners provided photos and an online blog post.

Schultz created a video, which he posted on social media Sept. 8, noting he felt disparaged by staff from the Johnson County Planning, Development and Sustainability Department and questioning if Johnson County truly supported local foods and local growers. At last check, the 25-minute video had been watched nearly 100,000 times, had more than 500 reactions and was shared more than 1,500 times.

Although Schultz would later try to temper reactions to the video, telling those who expressed desire to send “nasty notes” to the supervisors that he wanted only “nice” correspondence, a firestorm of sorts had already begun.

“I will not speak to swine with respect. You people are the current embodiment of the Nazi. You disgust me,” read the beginning of one expletive-laden response. Another described elected officials as “unbelievably stupid.”

Supervisors fielded more than 150 messages, many disparaging, according to county staff.

Josh Busard, director of the Planning, Development and Sustainability Department attempted to defend his staff and better explain the commission decision. The same day the video posted on Facebook, Busard circulated a memo offering background on the rezoning request, which his office received in early July, and responding to statements made by Schultz in the video. While the paper no doubt provided information to supervisors, which could be used to craft their responses to constituents, it otherwise had little impact on social media discourse.

Nearly every conspiracy theory regarding government was listed as a possible reason Johnson County might be “attacking” a local food producer.

To complicate the matter further, Schultz currently leases the property from Paul Durrenburger and Suzan Erem, who object to the rezoning request. Schultz says he intends to make good on an option to purchase the property next year. The three have had previous disagreements as well, the last resolved through mediation.

In response to Schultz’s video, Durrenburger and Erem began their own social media campaign by creating and circulating photos and a blog post, “Grant Schultz — Facts to Consider,” and copies of settlement documents.

“We hope these documents that constitute every legal agreement and disagreement we’ve had with Grant Schultz over the last four years help clarify any misinformation floating around the internet. By the way, we own the property. So if you believe in property rights, you should allow us to do as we please with our own land, and we don’t want it rezoned as a resort,” the two wrote.

But the narrative had already been written, especially for those watching from afar on social media. They took Schultz’s video and statements as fact, casting him in the role of a property owner being unduly regulated and attacked by a local government. Those who held the land deed were fat cats only trying to get richer by whisking away a business built by their leasee. County officials were stifling perceived competition of the Johnson County Poor Farm site, agents of the “Agenda 21” conspiracy, paid off by “big ag,” or worse.

Before an overflow crowd Thursday night Johnson County supervisors voted unanimously to follow the commission’s recommendation and deny the rezoning request for Schultz’s business, Versaland. It’s news that would typically merit a few inches in the paper, and be otherwise ignored by television and radio.

But this is the new normal. People near and far can choose to swallow any solitary viewpoint they’ve been hand fed. And they do, so long as it aligns with their worldview. For all the information at our fingertips, too few of us feel compelled to access it, digest it — to pause and think before we speak or type.

The new normal values reaction, not research. Imaginary points are tallied based on inflammatory rhetoric, regardless of whether such speech advances discussion.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on Sept. 17, 2017.