The hard earned emotions of our life influence our thoughts. They distract us from our initial purpose. I often begin a post and when finished I have to change the title to reflect the actual post – the burr under my saddle led me off course. Many of us have burrs under our saddles that will not allow us to simply heard cows – we are compelled to jump the ravine and hunt for Indians. We can tell a person has a burr under their saddle when they become fanatics for a cause. There is no cause worth alienating the world in general – but give me a cause and I can justify sarcasm, resentment, and political righteousness. Government Regulation is a lightning rod for cause oriented people. Both on the left and the right.
We want to herd cows but the Indians won’t leave us alone. In the case of government regulations, the Indians set up their tepees in the City Hall. They feel like a constant threat to the well-being of our family. I remember building a deck on the back of my home in the poverty of my young adult life. I could not afford cedar or redwood or treated lumber – I think I used white pine. I remember gong to City Hall with my hand-drawn design. The drawing was reflective of my intention and was accepted by the City folks. They challenged my idea of using pine. I explained my limited budget and told them that I intended to use an oil based stain – which I would apply to all boards before putting the deck together. I explained that all joints would have oil protection.
They were not really challenging the pine, but it felt like it to me. They were trying to give me advice – but the burr under my saddle was poking my sensitivity and I heard criticism. They approved the project because the basic criteria for sturdiness and appearance were met. Their intention was to help protect people standing on my deck and to protect the property values of my neighbors. As I reflect back I think the City Hall regulators were trying to help me and my neighbors at the same time. That is how it is supposed to work. But over-sensitive types (those with a saddle burr) over-interpret government intentions.
The reality is that City Hall regulators can also be a tremendous pain in the rear end – some of them have their own saddle burrs and they take out their anger on well meaning citizens – like you and me. Sometimes the people in positions of code enforcement are deranged wackos who use their authority to be big shots.
Here are a couple of examples of irritating code enforcement:
- The Water Company called one day to tell us that the water line to our house was leaking underground and it was our responsibility to fix it. The water was turned off. I had three small children and very little money. “Where is the leak,” I asked. I was ready to get my shovel and go to work. The Water Company informed me that the water ‘main’ was across the street and the leak on ‘my line’ was under the street. The Water Company had already dug a hole in the street and found the leak. They informed me that the leak and the repair to the street was my responsibility. They said that I would have to run a new line under the street before they could restore the water. I was also responsible for restoring the street to regulated standards. I felt fortunate that I knew a Journeyman Plumber – his name was not Joe. Merlin came to the rescue – he ran a new line under the street. This job really did require a professional. We called the Water Company and they came out to inspect the work. They liked the work but they said the regulations required that the new line be approved by a “Master Plumber.” Merlin was just a Journeyman Plumber. I called a Master Plumber and he came out and looked at Merlin’s work. The ‘look’ took about ten minutes and he signed off on the project, the Water Company turned on the water. The Mater Plumber sent me a bill for $220.
- When I bought another house in a lower middle class neighborhood the property line at the alley was against the neighbors concrete block garage. Over the years a number of small trees had taken root along the base of the garage – on my property. I took an ax and cleaned up the jungle. I piled the brush out beside my trash can. The trash hauler would not take the brush. The brush was there only a few days when I received a letter from the City warning me to clean up my property or they would do it for me and send me a bill. At the time I was working full time and going to school full time. I left the brush there for about ten days and then it disappeared. A week later I received a bill for fifty five dollars from the City. I was fuming – steam from my ears warmed my house for a month. My sense was that I was trying to clean up my property by removing unsightly trees and weeds – and then I was punished for not cleaning up my property.
I have experience both ways with regulators. I bought my present home about six years ago. The house is one hundred and eight years old. It was well built and will probably stand another hundred years. But over the years some goofy people have worked on the house. Some of my light switches are upside down. The breaker box in the basement has a two hundred amp main breaker – but the line coming to the house from the power pole is only rated for sixty-five amps. Some one put in a new 200 Amp box and never upgraded the line to the house. And I know why. The Light and Power Company cannot, by regulation, upgrade from sixty-five amps to 200 amps without a Master Electrician certifying that the house wiring will support the extra load. The internal house wiring was done by some jack-leg wacko who did not understand the difference between a 30 amp breaker and a 15 amp breaker. There are wires rated at 15 amps that run to 30 amp breakers. This house is a fire waiting to happen. I have been slowly rewiring the house – and in the mean time I am careful about what appliances I put on each circuit. My present configuration should keep the house safe.
So what happened? Why was this house allowed to be wired in a goofy unprofessional manner? The regulations say that I can wire anything I want in my own home. What I do in my home is nobody’s business. I can paint the interior walls pink and green and orange and the regulator can shove it up his back side. The problem is that I can create dangerous situations and then sell the home to some unsuspecting young couple looking for their first house. The problems become theirs.
The local county government is in the process as we speak of changing the regulations on single-wide mobile homes. I think the newspaper reported that their are about 200 single wide mobile homes in the county right now. Each of these homes were put in place with government approval and granted proper permits. The problem is that over the years these homes have changed ownership several times – each time with value depreciation. What was once a very nice new mobile home has become a run down fire trap that reduces the land values of the neighbors. You and I both know that the people who end up in the four thousand dollar used single wide mobile home are not rich folks. To deny them a permit for their home is to put them out on the street.
Balanced City zoning laws are very difficult to create. Someone always feels screwed. In the case of the mobile home someone has to lose. Either the home owners or their neighbors. And what if they are approved and then a fire sweeps through the home and kills the parents and four children?
Local regulation is an important problem that affects every city in America.
But remember that this is the United States of America. Representative government is very real at the local level. We can actually go to council meetings and protest new zoning laws. We really can challenge the Mayor and Council to act in the interest of the people. We can participate in the local elections and have a direct influence on local issues. But zoning laws are very seldom win/win. They are usually win/lose. Some one comes up on the short end of the stick.
Too many people do not understand their local governments. Too many people associate neighborhood zoning laws with the massive Federal Government. Our education system has failed in adequately teaching civics as an important life tool. Many people feel stuck on the short end of the Regulation stick. They are unaware that the rules are locally written and locally administered. Local rules are the easiest to challenge – we really can get right to the people who make the rules.
Local bureaucrats are often the most irritating of regulators. They are often low paid with little training in community relations – they find a sense of empowerment in their job – a sense of purpose. Every now and then a local community gets on a toot about cleaning up their city – look out folks, the bureaucrats think it is a full moon and their powers are magnified.
Personally I like a clean neighborhood. I like flowers and trees and well trimmed grass. I don’t like trash in the streets. I could go on and on about my personal likes and dislikes – but here is the deal – if you choose to live in a neighborhood then you accept the idea of compromise. We have a neighbor down the street who cut down all of the old oak and maple trees on his property – he said he hates raking leaves. Then he bought a leaf blower. If any leaves land on his property he blows them off – he claims they were never his in the first place. Some of us are thinking about approaching the City Council with a proposal to ban leaf blowers.
That is how it works. Civics 101.