“Every one of your Innovative Rural Business Models is illegal!”
That was the code enforcement guy at a recent event I spoke at. I just nodded and agreed. Yes, sure they are in some towns or in some circumstances. But so what?
Don’t let an outdated law or rule stop a great idea for your community. Whether it’s a business or a project, you have options to move forward.
The code enforcement guy went on to talk for an hour about how outdated rules and codes hold small towns back, and how they can and should adopt new ones. Clearly, he understands that illegal today doesn’t mean illegal forever and doesn’t mean you can’t ever do it.
We adopt rules so we can have a great community. When they no longer serve that, they can and should be changed. If a past council could adopt a rule, the current council can change it.
What can you do if you’ve been told your great business or project idea is illegal? Here are 5 practical steps you can use right away:
1. Ignore the rules. Do it anyway.
This is the “so what?” approach. So what can they do to you? Probably not much. We all know examples of other people doing other things that are against the rules in our towns. They manage to do it, so surely we are at least as wily.
“A project that starts unsanctioned can become sanctioned and approved quickly,” Mike Lydon said in the book Tactical Urbanism.
2. Read carefully to find a legal alternative.
This is my favorite way to deal with charges of “illegal!” Just out-think them to find a “legal enough” solution.
Lots of towns have old “no selling on the streets” rules. Fine. We’ll sell on the sidewalk, in a parking lot, from an empty lot or in an empty building.
Or maybe we won’t “sell” at all. Maybe we’ll give things away for free, and maybe get a sponsor to donate and cover the cost. Maybe we’ll turn it into a public art performance, not a business. There’s no rule against public art!
3. Do it anyway and pay the fine.
Big secret: lots of small town fine schedules were set up decades ago and are actually quite small. If that’s the case, why not go ahead and pay it? Call it a permit fee after the fact.
In fact, maybe you can’t find support to change a law or rule, but you can get support to change the fine to a pittance. Sort of a quiet agreement to allow cool projects like yours to happen.
4. Suspend the rules for now.
Declare a bureaucracy free zone for 3 months, and just see what happens, Fred Kent of the Project for Public Spaces suggested. What can happen that officials can’t undo in another 3 months?
Amsterdam holds a free, anyone can sell anything, market on the King’s Day. A little chaos can be a good way to test out ideas.
5. Change the rules for good.
It takes time, of course, and you’ll need a lot of support. But if you use one of the other tactics to build a record of success, then you’re in a stronger position to ask for change.
When you start trying to make rules changes, the code enforcement guy pointed out your councils of government and municipal leagues can play a key role in sharing example ordinances and leading discussion across geographic boundaries.
Have you been told your cool idea was illegal, but you still found a way to do it? I’d love to hear more. (You can change names and details to protect the innocent!)
New video: Against the Rules
Updated: January 2020
We’ve partnered with SaveYour.Town to bring you a video with 8+ practical ways to get your idea done no matter what the “rule enthusiasts” say. Learn more about it at: SaveYour.Town Against the Rules
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Becky McCray says
Here’s another tactic that can work: start with kids or nonprofits. People may be more likely to allow the same project if it’s to benefit a cause, or it’s run by a nonprofit, or if it’s a kids entrepreneurship project.
If you’re worried they’ll say no to your temporary shed businesses, start out by having the Friends of the Library sell used books from a shed as a temporary fundraiser. If they’ll allow that, it’s easier to move on to allowing any kind of business in a shed.