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This story is a few years old now, but is certainly worth retelling. The city of Sacramento famously has a statute on its books, 17.68.010 (sounds like it came straight out of an Ayn Rand novel) that basically requires residents to keep their properties neat. Now I am not necessarily against these sorts of requirements, at least not in a knee-jerk sort of way, and we’ll explain why in the future. But take it for what it’s worth. The statute does not permit shrubby and scrubby looking things in your yard and it does not permit your grass to get scruffy or burned out.

So what’s up? Back in 2008 the state declared a drought after a particularly dry spring and early summer. In response to the announcement a couple in the capital, Sacramento (or as Steve Summers used to say, Sacra-tomato) let their lawn die out in order to conserve water. And you know what’s coming don’t you? Code Enforcement Officers in Sacramento subsequently slapped the family with a fine for $746. Yep. After much outrage over this, the fine was eventually dropped, but two lessons are abundantly clear here and there are many more to boot.

  1. Code enforcement officials and other bureaucrats have a singular focus. You almost cannot blame them based on the incentives placed in front of them. Their job is to enforce the codes. And when they see a brown lawn, they write up the fine. They do not have the authority or discretion to make changes – instead their incentives and training tell them to do everything by the book. To shoot problems up to their higher-ups and pass the buck on any hard decision-making that has to happen. This problem has become so manifest in so many bureaucracies that I’d be shocked to see any “enforcement” official be able to use reasonable judgments about how to handle situations like this. I think we train kids to behave this way. For example, I’ve been e-mailing someone with some fairly direct questions about the costs of a program. It is clear that they do not know. It is clear that they have not even tried to know. And rather than tell me this, or to ask for my help in computing it … I get silence, and then a notice several weeks hence that their boss’s boss has been referred to deal with my question. And even after this double referral, still no whiff of the questions having progress made on them. I don’t quite understand it.
  2. We have no idea what statutes are on the book. It is 100% impossible to even know when you may or may not be breaking some law at some point. And what is particularly problematic about this is that we have no idea how future laws and decisions interact with statutes that are sitting on the books. I am sure that every single American can be imprisoned under some crazy code that they did not know existed. The legislators are not even sure about this. Governors and other executives are not even sure about this. Yet we plow away with the incredible notion that America is an unregulated cowboy capitalist paradise. This is not a call for deregulation, there is an easy way to craft smart and sensible regulations that adhere to the rule of law. This little lawn incident perfectly illustrates what we have instead. And rather than scrap ’em all and start from scratch I am almost sure the response to this would be: “Oh, so we’ll just add a disclaimer to the original law.” Give me a break.

Feel free to share your favorite examples in the comments.

3 Responses to “Adventures in Government Regulation, Front Lawn Edition”

  1. Dan says:

    In the spirit of enforcing dumb codes: Philadelphia makes it hard to vend food with a “Prohibited Streets List.” It doesn’t make sense in two ways: some of the areas have been banned since 1939; and it’s just really hard to read. Last year, it confounded a lawyer turned cupcake-vendor, who got fined for wandering a block too far into Center City.

  2. Harry says:

    I spent a year on our township’s planning commission during a year when the local land development ordinance was being written.

    Yes, I used the passive voice there, as opposed to saying, “When our elected officials were publicly debating, writing, and enacting law.”

    Not that they did not have something rolled up their sleeves, but the first step was to delegate the first draft to an employee of the county planning commission, who lifted boilerplate onto his pre-windows mainframe computer from (here I am guessing) model ordinances written by professors at Penn State and the University of Massachusetts.

    The draft did everything but specify the temperature at the shower head in a new home. It specified the type of trees to be planted in the front yard demanded that they be planted, and the exact spacing in between the trees, as well as the caliper of the trunk at five feet. Never mind that this would make every new street look like a scene out of Leave It to Beaver.

    The draft also specified all sorts of expensive “improvements”, like wide (thick) roads, sidewalks, and curbing.

    Thus, when someone who owned four or so acres wished to subdivide his property, he would henceforth have to present a plan to the Laird — er, Supervisors. More often than not the submissive landowner would ask for relief from all the stupid regulations in the ordinance; actually, they would first have to beg the planning commission first, and then after we would give thumbs up, it would go to the Supervisors for approval.

    If a majority of the folks on the planning commission liked you, and there was not “too much” money involved, say, under $250,000 for a couple filing jointly, many of the costly “improvements” might be waived, except for a “contribution” to the road improvement fund, should the road have to be widened.

    However, if they did not like you, they would waive nothing, and force you to follow the letter of the stupid law. That was the reason for the stupid law, what they had rolled up their sleeves.

    Even when a big-time operator came in, the regulations might be waived, but at a much higher price per acre.

    As one supervisor explained it to me, “We want it [insert street trees] there in case we need it.” Yeah, to extort money from would-be rich property owners.

    I cannot blame the brown-lawn enforcement officer for writing a $700 ticket. I forget who said it, but the vigorous enforcement of bad law is a good way to abolish it.

  3. Harry says:

    Maybe this one will be old news to Wintercow, a Brooklyn native. It is about parking enforcement in New York City, not lawn condition enforcement in Sacramento.

    We were having dinner with my friend Frank and his wife a few weeks ago, and the conversation led to Frank saying, I HATE New York. This is not a mere story about people living west of the Hudson not liking the idea of living east of the Hudson, as in NYC is a nice place to visit, but….

    Frank is in the construction business, and his company has done business in NYC. One of his jobs required a big crane and several deliveries of building materials to the job. I will omit the story about the crane, and try to recount the story of one of the deliveries to the job in Manhattan.

    Some time after the driver got to midtown, I believe with a semi full of metal panels, after 10 PM, he attempted to park.

    A policeman approached him and told him he would throw him in jail, unless he forked over three thousand dollars. The driver, from a less sophisticated part of the mid-Atlantic region, did not happen to have three hundred Benjamins in his wallet, so he spent the rest of the night driving around. By around ten o’clock the next day he met a car (Frank) at the site; Frank handed three grand to the officer on duty, his driver parked, and they off-loaded the panels. That was just for the truck to park in a space that had been previously permitted.

    Frank then dealt with parking the crane to hoist the panels.

    If you are in the construction business, you swim in this same river along with your competitors, and ultimately at least a big part of this extortion is passed on to the consumer, but also to the unfortunate shopkeeper who is stupid enough to try to make a living in New York City.

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