Unscientific survey could skew legitimate debate

Surveys are only as good as the science behind them.

Beaufort TEA Party officials say they want to survey businesses about their dealings with local governments.

But unless they offer results from a randomly selected, statistically valid survey, government officials and the public should treat it for what it is -- anecdotal information. The group's intentions might be good, but so should its science.

The TEA Party wants to ask local business owners whether they've faced difficulties setting up shop. They plan to distribute paper and online copies of a survey intended to gauge the barriers to operating a business in Beaufort County and hope to publish the results before April and discuss them with elected officials.

"We can't guarantee that the survey is going to be a scientific survey," said TEA Party member Jim Pennell. "But I think it'll be a little bit better than the anecdotes you hear at the barbershop."

Maybe, maybe not. But even if it is "a little bit better," elected officials should approach the information cautiously when it comes to changing ordinances that have been through the political process.

Sometimes business owners have a legitimate gripe about bureaucratic delay. No ones likes to be slowed in reaching a goal, particularly when time means money. But sometimes the delay is caused by a business owner failing or refusing to recognize requirements of the law.

Beaufort County Council discussed improving the county's economic development climate at its retreat this past weekend. Part of that could be "streamlining" the permitting process. Council Chairman Weston Newton correctly warned that the county must strike a "regulatory balance."

For years we've talked about streamlining and "hassle-free zones," even as we bemoaned our too rapid growth. Slower economic times make speeding up the process all the more tempting.

Surely, experience and technology can help ease the paperwork burden, and we shouldn't have rules just for the sake of rules. An improved review process could be a good for business owners and taxpayers. But any changes should keep in mind the goals of preserving and protecting the Lowcountry's natural beauty and resources.

Our design standards set us apart. We have critical natural resources that merit protecting.

We might be able to improve the process, but we shouldn't diminish the overall result.