Gallatin County's Zoning Enforcement Trap

I’m playing a big role in a local effort to get the regulations of our zoning district enforced in the case of an egregious violation. Our planning and zoning commission’s habit, and apparent preference in this case, is not to enforce. Instead, it is proposed to enable the violation through a PUD amendment, and issue a trivial fine ($200, or 0.2% of the stated value of the structure).

Unfortunately, this proposal is illegal, because it contradicts existing covenants and a variety of goals and specific provisions of our General Plan and Zoning Regulation. This action might make sense if it were a naked political ploy to undermine the zoning through administrative rather than legislative means, which I hope is not the case. I think it is more likely an effort to “play nice” with violators and to avoid costly enforcement action.

If so, the resulting weak enforcement posture is a short-sighted avoidance of conflict, that encourages far more problems in the long run. As the diagram below illustrates, backing down on the case at hand solves the immediate problem, but has terrible consequences.

Enforcement Dynamics

  • The precedent for non-enforcement and amendments to legalize violations erodes the legal basis for future enforcement actions.
  • Accommodation creates an expectation of forgiveness, encouraging owners and builders to violate in the future.
  • Exceptions created to accommodate violations make planning documents and title histories more complex, creating more opportunities for errors.

These side effects of lax enforcement accumulate. As violations mount, time that could be spent on productive activity (ensuring a thorough permitting process, or revising zoning regulations to clarify standards and streamline processes) gets squeezed out by time wasted on enforcement.

These reinforcing feedbacks create a deadly trap, into which the unsuspecting can easily step. Once triggered, the vicious cycle creates more pressure to relax enforcement standards, capturing the county in an undesirable equilibrium with many violations and no meaningful enforcement. Ultimately, the citizens (who initiated the zoning district) suffer from the side effects of density granted to violators, that is unavailable to those who comply with the law.

Fortunately, with a little fortitude, the process can be reversed. A single forceful enforcement action has a salutary effect on expectations, stemming the tide of violations and freeing up time for the improvement of regulations. There’s still the hangover of side effects of past accommodation to contend with, but surely the withdrawal is better than the addiction to accommodation.

The Law of Attraction

No, not that silly one.

Controlling Growth by Controlling Attractiveness

In Woodstock, Vermont, everyone’s mad about a highway. In other places the issue is a sewer system or a school. The real issue, of course, is growth. According to Jay Forrester’s Attractiveness Principle (Forrester is a professor of systems analysis at MIT) there’s only one way to control growth — control attractiveness.

In a free society if any place is unusually attractive, folks will — no surprise — be attracted there. The most mobile people (the young, the rich, the educated) will get there first. The place will grow until its attractiveness has been reduced by crowded highways, or unemployment, or scarce housing, or pollution, or just plain visual blight. (The most mobile people have moved on by then). When the place is no more attractive than anywhere else, then and only then will it stop growing. What else can stop it?

The attractiveness of a place is a complex combination of climate, economy, amenities, scenery. No one can define attractiveness exactly, but people make up their minds about it every day by deciding to move from Hartford or Boston or Westchester County to Vermont (that’s the direction they’re moving at the moment). Millions of human judgements weigh Vermont’s clean air against Boston’s job market and Manhattan’s cost of living. The very different mixes of attractiveness and unattractiveness in those places may seem incommensurable, but people make their comparisons, and eventually attractiveness evens out everywhere.

The normal instinct of public officials, including those of Woodstock, is to fix problems and make their community perfect. The more perfect they make it, the more new people show up. What Woodstock needs to do, Forrester would say, is decide what kinds of imperfection it’s willing to live with.

A crowded, unsafe highway? If that’s unacceptable, then choose something else. Super-restrictive zoning, perhaps, or an absolute limit on new curb cuts, or higher property taxes (I know, they’re already too high, but not high enough to stop people from moving in). Bad schools. Bad air. No jobs. Developments so ugly you might as well live in New Jersey. Some sort of whopping surcharge on those developers. Either Woodstock chooses its form of unattractiveness, or the growth process itself chooses.

It takes awhile to absorb the implications of the Attractiveness Principle, because it turns conventional thinking upside down (Forrester is good at doing that). Its implications are not good news for the sort of people who live in Woodstock. The Principle says you can’t live in a privileged bubble of attractiveness, unless you are perpetually young, rich, educated, and on the move at the head of the attractiveness wave. It says that growth is your problem wherever it occurs. It says the only way to be sure of living in an attractive place is to be committed to the attractiveness of every place.

From the Donella Meadows Archive