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Rules, Rules, and More Rules PDF Print E-mail
Written by John Ise, BT Contributor   
October 2016

Let’s bring back common sense and compromise

A Pix_John_Ise_10-16few years back, an 11-year-old girl in Illinois developed a taste, as probably 99 percent of all 11-year-old girls do, for cupcakes. But unlike most girls, she cultivated a keen talent for baking cupcakes and then sharing them with friends at birthday parties.

The cupcakes became so popular that she started her own informal enterprise, selling her cupcakes and clearing close to $200 per month. Then the local Department of Health came in and cited this enterprising tween for operating a business without a license.

She and her family were also directed to move into a commercial kitchen compliant with current health codes. Alas, the dejected girl ceased selling her cupcakes.

Arrrgh! What infuriating government overreach! Where’s my Libertarian Party application? This story comes from the bipartisan advocacy group Common Good, which seeks governmental and legal reform. It’s headed by Philip Howard, author of the book The Death of Common Sense, which should be required reading for every lawyer, bureaucrat, and elected official.

The book bemoans how government at too many levels has become an indecipherable mass of laws, rules, regulations, and red tape that few comprehend and that only frustrate the public and grind government efficiency to a near halt.

Hermine Ricketts’ front-yard vegetable garden is another study in how detailed rules and regulations create unnecessary conflict. For 17 years she and her husband cultivated a vegetable garden for personal use in their Miami Shores front yard (the backyard tree canopy cast too much shade), but then she was cited for being in violation of the Village Code, which prohibits front-yard vegetable gardens.

No neighbor had complained, and few today comprehend what “problem” the citation was seeking to resolve. Adherence to the rule, and the rule above all else, trumped other considerations and closed any path toward a mutually amicable resolution. (Might a picket fence or landscaping have resolved any aesthetic concerns?) But think about it. Would a spice garden be prohibited? Would three tomato plants constitute a garden? Once you go down this rabbit hole, where it ends is anybody’s guess.

Ricketts fought to preserve her vegetable garden, leading to an inevitable lawsuit, which most recently resulted in a ruling in favor of the Village prohibition.

The vegetable garden is gone, and Ricketts says she now spends hundreds of dollars a month on a Whole Foods grocery bill for the vegetables she used to grow and consume.

With the Village celebrating Green Day this month, Ms. Ricketts scoffs at the disconnect, noting that nothing could be greener than growing and eating your own organic vegetables.

She now is in the process of replacing her vegetable plot with an emerging butterfly garden. For this she can thank Mary Benton, whose beautiful, lush butterfly garden also came under Village scrutiny. Until last month (thanks to Benton’s activism), flowers and ornamental shrubs were not explicitly permitted in the landscape code -- making them implicitly prohibited.

Then there is the case of the Jolly Mutt grooming store whose owner, Regina Vlasek, wanted to relocate to a larger space within the Village when she unexpectedly discovered that dog grooming was not an explicitly permitted business activity, despite the Jolly Mutt having been in business for 52 years.

Vlasek, with broad community support, had to jump through the uncomfortable hoop of going before the Planning and Zoning Board to request a variance that would allow for her business to relocate.

A stroll through the hundreds of pages of the Village Code of Ordinances shows the excruciating detail given to much of modern life. Sticking with jolly mutts (and cats), the code declares that residents are allowed no more than three dogs (or four cats) over the age of six months and that they must not “habitually” (whatever that means) bark or meow. There’s a blanket prohibition on any dog that has killed a human (however, it remains silent on cats in this respect).

Of course we need effective and commonly understood code enforcement and rules. They protect us from pollution, enforce public safety, and provide order.

If anyone doubts the need for some level of adherence to code, take a quick drive through some of the dilapidated pockets of unincorporated Dade, including the western border of Miami Shores, where you’ll find cars being disassembled on front lawns (forget the vegetable garden controversy), and where the occasional snarling pit bull growls as you stroll by.

Councilman Mac Glinn cautions me that there’s a story behind every layer of the Village code. But as in life, Village regulations require a balancing act that ensures mutual respect, personal responsibility -- and even a healthy sense of humor. Once, when applying for a permit to paint my picket fence white, I was asked for a paint sample. Lacking a paint sample of “white,” I promptly drew a box on a white piece of paper with an arrow stating, “sample.”

The administrator, not catching the drift of my humor, directed me to return with actual sample of white paint.

But above all else, there needs to be a give and take in governance. Dictates that are so precise they don’t allow for any discretion or flexibility are the enemy of an efficient, nimble government.

The truth is, Miami Shores is staffed by men and women of above-average talent and capabilities. They should be empowered to make judgments and seek consensus, not just bound by their positions to simply comply with rigid mandates. But too often, per author Philip Howard, government personnel and the public are at a point where “avoiding legal risk has become our goal. We pause, we worry, we equivocate, and then we divert our energy into trying to protect ourselves. Responsibility is preempted by law.”

A common-sense solution may be to simplify our laws and rules into basic goals and principles. If the goal is to ensure beautiful front lawns, then let’s work with the Ricketts and Bentons of the world for whom beauty and vegetable/butterfly gardens co-exist. If there’s disagreement, then let’s use mechanisms for resolving disagreements and creating consensus.

Life is too complex for rigid regulatory boxes. Howard suggests that vast swaths of laws should have sunset dates, meaning our elected officials must review them -- say, after 10 or 15 years -- to contemplate their relevance and impact, and then affirmatively decide whether to renew or not.

In the end, a democratic government is our creation and our responsibility. According to the latest Miami Shores newsletter, there are three vacancies on the Code Enforcement Board and two on the Planning and Zoning Board. Get involved and make a difference.

 

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