Exempt building permits from subjective design reviews

How bureaucracy is killing the American dream
Arrol Gellner
Inman News™
Editor’s note: This is the last of a three-part series.
In the last two columns, I recounted the true story of Daniel Ludwig, a Romanian immigrant who came to America essentially penniless in 1955, yet was able to buy a home, build himself a woodworking shop, and establish a thriving cabinetmaking business within six years of his arrival here.
Then, by way of example, we magically transported Dan into the present to see how his immigrant story might fare in today’s America. One immediate difference: Today, the likelihood of Dan ever affording a house was virtually nil. But even supposing he’d been able to buy some property, today’s tangle of zoning, building, aesthetic and environmental regulations would likely have foiled any attempt to set up his own woodworking shop, much less make a success of it. Hence, the classic American immigrant story of 1955 becomes the classic dead-end road of 2011.
What has gone wrong in America?
One problem is that, rather than encouraging working-class people like Dan Ludwig to succeed through their own initiative, local government now does its very best to impede them. Virtually every city hall is a hornet’s nest of regulations attempting to micromanage every aspect of what private property owners can and cannot do with their own land. While large, well-connected applicants such as developers can afford to negotiate the intricacies of zoning, building, aesthetic, noise and environmental regulations, people of lesser means often cannot.
If we’re serious about cultivating today’s Dan Ludwigs — the small-business owners who are, after all, the backbone of our economy — city governments need to clear at least a small path through the regulatory minefield they’ve created. One simple way to do this is to make all regulations strictly quantifiable: As long as an applicant meets clearly prescribed, quantifiable standards — whether regarding building size, noise, green material content, or what have you — he or she would be assured of approval.
There’s nothing new about this idea. Building codes have consisted of quantifiable regulations for over a century: Comply with them, and you’re good to go. Regulations for zoning, noise abatement, environmental protection and practically any other area worth enforcing can be framed in the same way.
However, this standard would quickly weed out the sort of capricious building and design regulations whose uncertain outcomes only further increase a private applicant’s risk. It would, for example, immediately and deservedly obliterate all civic design review regulations, those utterly subjective, so-called aesthetic “guidelines” that have nevertheless come to be enforced with the power of law. Quantifiable regulations would also do away with the circus of planning commission meetings, in which any neighbor with a grudge or too much free time can torpedo months or years of careful and conscientious planning on an applicant’s part.
We still think of America as the land where anything is possible, but in truth, many things are a lot less possible than they used to be. If Dan Ludwig were still around — and I wish he were, because he was my uncle, as well as my inspiration for becoming an architect — I’m sure he would wonder why our government bedevils the very people it needs the most.
Read Arrol Gellner’s blog at arrolgellner.blogspot.com, or follow him on Twitter: @ArrolGellner.

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