Environmental Regulations Can Be Made User Friendly

Published July 1, 1997

Local land use and environmental regulations can be made much more user-friendly without sacrificing community objectives. Here are a few ways suggested by John L. Gann Jr., a planning expert and president of Gann Associates, with offices in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, and Monroeville, Pennsylvania. Readers may want to clip this list and pass it along to local regulators.

1. Don’t Overreach Never prohibit something when just partially restricting it will get the job done. Unfortunately, outright prohibitions are faster and cheaper to draft and less trouble to enforce, and some communities are prone to take the easy way out.

2. Respect Property Rights Achieving a clean environment doesn’t have to mean denying property owners the right to develop or otherwise use their land. Building rights can be transferred from open areas or environmentally sensitive areas to the more buildable parts of the same tract. The overall number of homes or gross leasable area can be left undiminished despite tough restrictions on part of the property.

3. Give ‘Em a Choice Regulations can mandate an outcome without specifying a way that must be used to get there. Provide different rules for different situations. Or offer the regulated a choice of two or three acceptable options. Government should avoid the one-size-fits-all approach.

4. Incentivize Mandates and prohibitions aren’t the only way to get someone to do something. Actually, they’re just about the worst way. Regulators should take a cue from business and consider the virtues of motivation and incentive. McDonald’s makes us want its fries and Ford makes it difficult not to lust after its Mustang convertibles.

5. Watch Your Language While what regulations say isn’t always welcome to property owners, how they say it can add insult to injury. Too many regulations are legalistic, obscure, wordy, repetitive, ambiguous, and even contradictory. Little of this is really needed for legal soundness. And rules can be made a lot easier to negotiate with just a little up-front empathy for the businessperson or property owner who is expected to figure them out.

6. Simplify, Simplify Thoreau had the right idea. While regulations that are too simple can be inequitable, much regulatory complexity is fussy and unnecessary. Multiple rules in an ordinance that are similar but not identical, for example, can be merged into a single rule unless there’s a good reason they need to be different. Usually there isn’t.

7. Ask the User Businesses survey customer preferences, and now even some government agencies commendably ask users of their service what they like and don’t like. But this isn’t done enough when regulations are prepared. Soliciting and listening to suggestions from the regulated can improve regulations without compromising the public interest. And it can help relations with the private sector to boot.

Derived from an article that first appeared in the June/July 1995 issue of Pennsylvania Planner. The complete article with examples illustrating each point may be obtained from Gann Associates, phone 800/762-GANN, or the Pennsylvania Planning Association in Harrisburg, phone 717/236-2039.