General News · 10th September 2018
A common - almost universal - problem of our time is that legislators, planners, and assorted bureaucrats persistently ignore scale and locality when drafting policy and law. The error is almost always in the direction of imposing inappropriately large-scale regulation onto small-scale situations.
Classic examples of this abound in the local food movement. Rigid rules and regulations entirely appropriate for safeguarding public health against malpractise in Big Corporate Ag or the chain restaurant trade, are inappropriately enforced against the small local producer; this leads to crazy situations (certainly in the US and sometimes in Canada) like kids' lemonade stands being shut down for want of a restaurant license, or PTA bake sales being forbidden to offer home-baked goods. Our own recent experiences with VIHA offer further illustration, for those who remember them :-)
The problem is not limited, however, to the world of food and farming. Some of the language in (both drafts of) our local, hotly-contested bylaw seems over-formal and over-scale - silly, in fact - when applied to a 2-ferry island with only 1000 full time residents. And (as with overscale, inappropriate food safety enforcement) the net effect can be stifling to local economic enterprise.
[Whether this stifling and squeezing-out of the small-time producer is truly coincidental, or is part of some kind of vast orchestrated plot by corporate power in cahoots with suborned government, I leave to your imagination; it seems pretty obvious that when it is made impossible for people to produce or trade successfully amongst themselves on the micro scale, they have to "outsource" goods and services outside of their community and/or work for big-capital enterprises, thus feeding the Big Biz economy. However, it's also pretty obvious that "one size fits all" makes a kind of sense from the bureaucracy's point of view: it's a lot less work than maintaining and adjusting umpteen idiosyncratic codes of law for umpteen communities. Lazy bureaucracy, or "efficient" bureaucracy - a mere side effect of increasing complexity and population density, or a corporate plot - whatever. The bottom line is that it's generally not a good thing to have cumbersome out-of-scale laws imposed on small communities and petty entrepreneurs.]
There are several sections of both old and new bylaw language which, if I'm reading them correctly, fall into this category.
1) prohibition of short-term rentals on properties not zoned Commercial
2) prohibition of sale of goods not produced on property, for properties not zoned Commercial
3) prohibition of residence on property zoned Commercial, if no business being conducted on site
The first seems directly aimed at people offering a small guest cottage or AirBnB for summer visitors, and may partly reflect a push-back from the hotel industry bending policy in urban/suburban areas. On an island with very little hotel/motel space, where there is never enough accommodation for visitors, it seems silly to prohibit an activity that is net-beneficial: there's no conflict of interest with a powerful local hotel lobby; such seasonal rental makes income for the host, and it provides beds for visitors who then spend money here and contribute to our tourist economy.
The second seems aimed at preventing someone in a suburban setting from establishing some sort of private Amazon warehouse, where they import goods in quantity and resell direct or by mail from their residence address. Why this needs to be prohibited I am not sure, unless the drafters of the language imagine a direct-sales operation large enough to create traffic/parking problems in a neighbourhood or to overload the local postal service.
But we don't live in a suburb. Transportation costs alone would make it impractical for anyone to set up an Amazon-style operation of any size here. What it does mean for us is that several beneficial businesses, which bring useful goods to the island in bulk and re-sell them to locals, are technically illegal, and their operator/owners would have to tackle a daunting re-zoning process in order to "go legit".
Both these policies seem to conflict directly with our oft-stated goals of fostering and growing an island economy, encouraging micro-enterprise, trying to keep more dollars on Cortes, etc. As policies they are discouraging to individual enterprise; they make it harder for people to survive and build local businesses on the island.
The third instance is, I am pretty sure, intended to prohibit people from "sitting on" a potentially useful commercial-zoned property, leaving it vacant or barely tenanted and commercially inactive. In a city neighbourhood, one might perhaps see why planners wouldn't want a few chronically dark storefronts breaking up the line of an attractive shopping street.
But again, on a small rural island with only a handful of commercially zoned properties, it hardly seems like an issue; and potentially, it could result in injustice to locals. One scenario might be the occupation of a commercially zoned property for some years by a person who during their tenancy first operates a small business, then retires and continues to live there. Why should that person feel compelled to leave their home, or alternatively, why should that parcel lose its useful commercial zoning (so that any subsequent buyer with a business plan would have to start all over with a discouraging rezoning process)? The function of law in human societies is supposed to be to make our lives smoother, not harder.
One common response to nitpicking objections such as these is that the letter of the law is not so important; social relations and local conventions almost always override it anway. Lots of things are technically illegal that no one gives a hoot about, so why not just let the bureaucrats write and enact their silly laws if it keeps them happy? We can agree to ignore them.
It's an attractive response (being easy and lazy, and often true in practise!) but personally, I have grave reservations about it. Leaving enacted laws lying about unenforced and half-forgotten is a bit like leaving old dynamite lying about. It can go off unexpectedly. When the law gets seriously out of synch with actual practise in a community, it offers golden opportunities for troublemaking.
Neighbours with a personal grudge can seize the chance to rat each other out. Police or other officials with an attitude can start selectively enforcing, using these "sleeping dog" laws to harass individuals. The code of law for a community should (after due regard for national law and universal principles such as human rights) reflect that community's own ideals, social conventions, and best interests. If there's a serious mismatch between law and reality, there's a risk of social corrosion (including a loss of respect for law itself).
To wrap it up: the language of this bylaw (in both old and new incarnations) seems to me in several places mismatched to the actual situation on the ground, here on the island. The language does not reflect the ideals I most often hear on Cortes (neither libertarian nor progressive!). It is dissonant with our social conventions. It seems to contradict our goals. It doesn't seem (to me) to be in our best interests.
I haven't carefully analyzed every paragraph of the drafts; this is just what jumped out at me after an initial glance at the public debate. There may very well be more flaws that should be addressed. (I am still reeling from the awful implications of the "outlaw all private docks and moorings" alteration, and not yet able to comment on it coherently.)
I feel strongly that this bylaw must be rejected - repeatedly if necessary - until it's re-written with a realistic grasp of local conditions. One size does not fit all. In fact, it's not entirely clear to me why SRD has to write our bylaws for us, missing the mark repeatedly and incurring expensive iteration and much waste of everyone's time. Doesn't it seem possible that we could draft our own, in fewer pages, with more common sense, and present it to SRD for approval rather than the other way around?
My feeling is that regulation should devolve always to the most local possible level, relaxing as scale gets smaller, tightening as scale gets larger. Micro-management from afar, and application of elephant-sized law to flea-sized scenarios, are recipes for dysfunction. This bylaw is hardly the most extreme case ever seen, but it's flawed enough to make me wish I had been on-island on Sept 5th. I'm glad the community came out strongly to critique and reject it. Thanks, neighbours.
Comment by Patricia L on 11th September 2018
I enjoyed reading your article De. Well done.
Comment by sue vican on 11th September 2018
Excellent points, thank you for taking the time to comment!
A most excellent summation
Comment by Jack wills on 11th September 2018
Well written and really hits the most important points of this very ill conceived Bylaw 309.
If implemented, there would be far reaching negative effects of a wide range of Cortes island business and residences.
During the Public Hearing, several speakers found in necessary to remind the SRD that Cortes Island was indeed an island! The bureaucrats seem quite out of touch with life here.
Bylaw 309 should be scrapped in it's entirety.
Great piece! Thank you!
Comment by Becky Knutson on 11th September 2018
Very well stated, De! You bring up many excellent points. The goal of the bylaws need to reflect the needs and priorities of OUR community.
Comment by Ian Ross on 11th September 2018
De, thanks for your incredibly articulate response to the latest outrage. Ever think about running for Regional Director? Thanks for taking the time to write.