Right V. Legal

I received a number of comments and observations after last week’s post. Please know that I greatly appreciate your comments and love to hear from you. Some of the notes were personal, but others contained gems that could benefit us as all – please consider posting those types of comments in the space provided below. The standard format for a blog is that I write and you read. However, I think it would be kick ass for ya’ll to be able to see what each other have to say rather than being stuck with just my stuff. Moving on…

I am going to be explicit about a concept this week that has been implied in a number of my past posts. That concept is that doing the right thing does not necessarily mean doing the legal thing. Another way of phrasing that may be “just because something is legal doesn’t make it right”. To hammer all of that in ground: what is right trumps what is legal. Before any of my jackass friends submit a cheeky comment below, please know that I am by no means trying to establish myself as a moral authority or someone who always knows what is right. I am as flawed as anybody else (if not more so), some of the skeletons in my closet still have meat on the bones.

One of our issues is that we can no longer approach a situation from different perspectives and work through them to craft a solution.* We immediately make the leap to what the law says we can or can’t get away with. We too often use the law as a substitute for a moral compass. Fortunately, in our society the right thing to do is legal most of the time. The notable exception is the body of law that applies to our built environment.

All of the laws governing building and land use are derived from the police powers (protecting the health, safety and welfare of the community). Plumbing, electrical and structural codes all work to make sure that buildings are safe. Zoning and subdivision regulations are designed to keep citizens safe and healthy. The laws are, in effect, design guidelines because they dictate the form of the elements they address.

Zoning and subdivision regulations (aka design guidelines) spread throughout out country at a time when the prevailing philosophy was that every aspect of life should be separated and segregated. We created places to shop, places to live, places to manufacture, places for recreation. This is, of course, flew in the face of thousands of years of human settlement and civilization. Our system has been around for 60 years of the several millennia of human existence, and is an unmitigated disaster. In so short a time, the system has already started to collapse under its own weight (see 2008-present). The problem is, our system is broken, most people realize it, but we can’t build anything else because the design guidelines force us to continue to build in a dysfunctional way. In this case, we cannot do the right thing because of an unjust law.

The common misconception is that a developer will always build to the lowest common denominator. The fear is that they will build down to any minimum and up to any maximum for a given requirement. That’s not always true. In our market system, the assumption is that every developer will do what is in his or her best financial interest. Getting by with minimum requirements is not always in the best interest of the developer. One of our current dilemmas is that in making laws that dictate minimums we are in essence proclaiming that these minimum practices are “right” or “good”. The result is that every developer now begins with these low standards as a starting point.

The fact is that the quality of our built environment is being undermined by our current design guidelines (zoning, subdivision, and traffic requirements). These laws have a direct negative impact on economic development, job creation, our current governmental budgets, and the ability of future generations to pay for their inherited city. These issues run far deeper than “quality of life” or aesthetic concerns (not that they have to in order to be valid). We have created a situation in our country where building in a good, conscientious, and responsible way is often against the law.

Yet beyond all of those things, there is a more fundamental issue of “right” that we should be ever mindful of. That, of course, is how we treat all of our brothers and sisters in the community. I refer to everyone in the community – not just helping the poor or disadvantaged (although these are the instances where doing right seems to be most evident). Take, for example, the case I outlined in last week’s post. Our neighbors lived in a house that had some issues. The law of the land dictated that under those conditions, the home needed to be condemned until it was brought up to the standards that our society has established for what a human being can safely live in. Our neighborhood had a choice to either do the legal thing (call the city and let the legal process run its course), or what I think would have been the right thing (to reach out help and our neighbors). Unfortunately, we all know how that went down. (On an absolutely and totally unrelated note, it appears that the neighborhood drive to raise $16,500 to purchase public art for the park is progressing nicely.)

I don't believe that making better laws is the ultimate answer.  We need to be more focused on doing the right thing instead of simply keeping it legal.

*I read somewhere that this can, in part, be attributed to youth sports culture. Way back when I was a little one, neighborhood kids played sports with one another unsupervised. We had to resolve all disputes amongst ourselves or none of us would achieve our shared goal, which was to play the game. For team sports, you needed all of the kids you could muster, so there was an incentive on everyone’s part to do what they could to make the game work. Theses days, kids play in organized leagues with referees and helicopter parents. They don’t get to experiment with the art and nuance of compromise- only the rules that are adjudicated by an authority figure.

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