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Rod Thomson, Editor-at-Large
Sarasota Thursday, Feb. 2, 2012 5 years ago

My View: Hold back the heavy hand

by: Rod Thomson

Sarasota County staff recently presented heavy-handed code changes to landscaping that would have required even more bureaucracy to oversee onerous burdens on a struggling industry.

Thanks at least in part to Commissioner Christine Robinson’s tenacious grilling of the proposed ordinance line by line, most of the changes were scrapped temporarily. The county now is planning to move forward only to make the necessary changes to bring the ordinance in line with new state laws.

But this will come back up. Powerful special interests in the environmental community and other community activists want it. The process is instructive, because it is becoming clearer that problems with over-regulation often start with the bureaucrats themselves. In this case, county staff seems to favor micromanaging private lawns.

The original intent of the changes to the county’s landscaping ordinance was to “require” sustainable planning and installation, “require” water-efficient irrigation and “encourage” conservation of water resources. One basic problem is that its being a requirement was fine with staff and apparently philosophically fine with the Republican commissioners.

It is noteworthy that the assumption seems to be that if the government does not mandate what it believes to be common sense and good business practices, homeowners and companies will waste money on inefficient systems that look bad.

But there are times, perhaps many times, when the costs of the more efficient systems do not make economic sense. In those cases, common sense and good business dictate the systems that county bureaucrats and environmentalists don’t prefer. That is why they want a law to force private landowners to do what they think is best.

People roll their eyes when some of us lament sarcastically that “government knows best,” but that is the exact thinking underlying these types of changes. Property owners don’t know best or do best, so government must step in and mandate what they plant, what soil they use and what watering systems are allowable. And we’re just fine with that? Apparently so.

Fortunately in this case, the county staff did such a poor job of putting the changes together and was so unprepared for Robinson’s questions that the County Commission unanimously rejected them. But only for now.

“It’s fundamentally flawed in the wording of the language.” Robinson said during her questioning of the changes. “I can’t get past any of this. It’s so ambiguous.”

Other commissioners agreed. “A lot of this language is just not appropriate,” said then-Chairwoman Nora Patterson.

The proposed changes were not just poorly done, though. They represent the wrong policy at any time.
When the county met with industry groups and conducted an online Wiki, it encountered sharp opposition. The county’s own Development Services Advisory Committee, the Sarasota Chamber of Commerce and homebuilders associations all opposed the changes.

Here is just one example of the ridiculous overreach and the resources it eats up: One proposed change was that “no plants shall be planted under roof overhangs.”

The normal reader immediately sees this obviously is not a place for government. But government does not see this at all.

The topic engendered lively debate, not over whether the county should or should not micromanage plants under eaves, but that perhaps some plants could be allowed, such as Spanish bayonet or Yucca aloifolia, because their sharp leaves offer a barrier to intruders at windows. Amazing.

The commission directed staff to work with Robinson on “smoothing out” the language. But she said she has reservations about the level of regulation being attempted. Added Patterson: “It must be practical.”

What would be most practical would be letting people decide, without government oversight, what they want to plant in their own yards and businesses.

Rod Thomson can be reached at [email protected].

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