The “Pot Bellied Pig” fiasco

1 10 2010

Back in the late 1970s, there was a fad including Vietnamese Pot Bellied Pigs as family pets. In one northern California town, there was a ban on farm animals in residential neighborhoods—and pigs were on the list of “including and not limited to cows, horses, pigs, chickens, ducks…” enacted in the ordinance. One half of a pair of feuding neighbors called the city planning department complaining their neighbor had a pig.

Investigating the complaint, the planning department agreed and ultimately cited the pig’s owners for not getting rid of the animal they were call a “family pet.” All planning actions at the staff level are appealable, and the family appealed to the city council. The night of the heavily attended, family-publicized meeting, the television cameras were rolling as the planners explained the content of the code and why the family was violating zoning regulations. Facts, logic, photographs, and statements were presenting supporting the planners’ case.

Then the family had its say. The father talked about the pig—I wish I could remember its name—and how it was smart, used a litter box, was smaller than the complaining neighbor’s German shepherd, and any number of emotional reasons why they should be allowed an exception to the code. The father concluded his plea by saying that the pig was very smart, made no noise, and was well-trained. With that, he pointed to the Council Chamber doors. Opened by one of the children, the audience was treated to the pig dressed in a tux, bow tie, top hat, and spats romping down the center aisle. Upon reaching the father, the pig pushed itself up on its hind legs and turned a circle on two legs, then plopped down and looked at the audience with that “pig face grin” for which the animals are well known in cartoons. The audience let loose with a reasonably loud “awww.”

How are you going to fine a family for that? The Council was trapped, here’s the planner and City’s attorney saying, “the law is the law” and a family with crying children begging for an exception.

With television cameras watching, what else could the Council do? They directed staff to write an amendment to the law making an exception to pot bellied pigs.

For me, every community in which I worked, one of my objectives was to remove animal regulations from zoning codes. Let the dog catcher deal with it.


One person’s weed is another’s flower

28 09 2010

“I wish I never answered the phone that morning,” growled Mike, a planning colleague as a group of us enjoyed dinner at the annual conference of the American Planning Association. We were talking of PITA (pain in the ass) zoning regulations we had to enforce. He continued with our rapt attention, “We have an ordinance requiring people to properly maintain their landscaping. That phone call started a nightmare for me ultimately involving the Smithsonian Institution and National Botanical Garden.” We were hooked.

My colleague and acoustic consultant, Jim Brennan, always told me “noise is unwanted sound.” Mike learned the hard way that “weeds are unwanted flowers,” or in his case, “flowers are wanted weeds.” In planning, we all know that the vast majority of zoning complaints result from neighbor feuds. This call, Mike explained, was no exception; what’s worse, he grumbled, “I wasn’t even ‘up,’ it’s just that no one was available to take the call.” The complainant wanted the city to order the next-door neighbor to get rid of all the weeds in the front lawn, “it’s an eyesore to the neighborhood, and she won’t do anything about it. We’ve talked to her.” “We” was not further defined, just left as an implication several in the neighborhood had talked to the offending party.

Mike drove by the property with a camera that afternoon, and the complainant was right, the lawn was filled with weeds. Taking a picture, he sent the zoning violator a letter the next day ordering corrective action. The violation was logged and put in the tickler for later review and further action, if necessary. The morning after the letter would have reached the homeowner, Mike said his direct line was ringing right at 8:00.

“I do not have weeds in my front yard,” the woman’s voice slammed into his ear. “Jim Smith (fake name, obviously) complained, didn’t he?”

“Ma’am, when a violation is determined,” Mike explained in standard plannerese, “it’s between you and the city. Where we learned of it doesn’t matter.”

“Don’t I have a right to face my accuser?”

“Ma’am, the City is your ‘accuser’.”

“Whatever. There are no weeds in my front yard. I have nothing but wildflowers. My front lawn is ‘xeriscape’ natural landscaping to conserve water. Doesn’t the city want us to conserve water? It said so in the last water bill.”

“Ma’am, I was by your house the other day, the front lawn is filled with weeds.”

Indignantly she replied, “They are NOT weeds. I can prove it. You think they’re weeds because you don’t know anything about the native plants you expect everyone to plant, do you?”

Mike admitted to us that she was right, “We’re always demanding new landscaping include ‘native species’,” he looked at each of us in turn, “Right?” We all nodded. “Well, she had me there. I couldn’t identify half the plants on our native species list if I had to.” It turns out, he explained, that the plants had cycles in which they “went to seed,” and I viewed the property during this cycle. “I learned that she lets the dead plants stay in the ground until she harvests the seeds to add to the front yard. It’s all natural.”

He rambled on about the continuing complaints, his continuing efforts, and then one day he received a phone call from the “violator.” “Mike,” they were now on a first-name basis, “I have on the phone with me a botanist from the Smithsonian Institution’s National Botanical Garden in Washington, DC. She can fax you credentials if you need proof, or you can call her back at her number if you don’t believe me.” Mike said he stipulated acceptance.

The botanist came on and explained that she had reviewed the seed packets the “zoning violator” used on the front lawn, “I don’t understand the objective, Mike, these seeds are all from plants native to your area. None of them are classified as ‘noxious weeds’ or ‘invasive species.’ In fact, based on the photos of the neighborhood I reviewed, her house is the only one with native plants. Everyone else with lawns, shrubs, and trees are universally planted with non-native species.”

The moral we decided was not to enact any code we didn’t fully understand the implications…and definitely to remove the word “encourage” from the spell check dictionaries so it never showed its ugly face in a plan or ordinance every again.

“I’m not going back!”

25 09 2010

“They all should be sent back. The whole family,” the rider across the aisle was mumbling on the Route 44 bus heading south on Tatum Boulevard one morning. The regulars were discussing Arizona’s SB1070 and the reaction to the law from around the world. This story is not taking a position—this type of blog is not supposed to dwell on political issues—on SB1070, but the concept of unintended consequences.

The unnamed rider—I don’t think we know any of each other’s names—was talking about the need for expansion to require an entire family—children, parents, grandparents—to be deported to Mexico if any member of the family was in this country illegally. I looked across the aisle and said, “I’m not going back.”

“What?” he blurted.

“I’m not going back. I don’t speak Ukrainian or Russian; I’ve never been there. I’m not going back.”

“This wouldn’t apply to you.”

“Why not? You said if any member of the family, grandparents included, came into the country illegally, the whole family should go back.”

“But you were born here, right?”

“Yes, I was, but my grandmother was an illegal immigrant. Under this law you’re proposing, I’d be expatriated to the Ukraine. Are you sure your grandparents came here legally?” I asked. He was speechless at the concept—unintended consequences.

Three decades serving local governments, I was on the front line of unintended consequences as an urban planner. If one were to read zoning codes across the country—not brand new ones, but an code in effect for more than three or four years—the “midnight call law” is easy to discern. The “midnight call law” is a code amendment added because a member of the Council or the County Board received a complaint from a constituent via a late night phone call. These are easy to see: numbers of animals, noise limits, prohibitions on “non-pets” in urban settings.

There are many others as well—junk, “blighted” yards, and roommates. The common denominator of all these zoning regulations is that the regulations are simple to enact, difficult to enforce, and generate significant ill will between planners and neighborhoods. The other problem is that zoning codes are supposed to be uniformly enforced—it doesn’t matter whether the accused violator is a buddy of an elected official or not. Planners have many examples, but I have two favorites: the “Pot Belly Pig fiasco” and the “They’re not weeds, they’re wildflowers” lawn…in the next two blogs.