Municipal Code Drafting and Interpretation

March 22, 2013

Tussles between private land owners and government representatives fueled the revolution that formed the United States. Boulder County, the City of Boulder, and some Homeowner Associations stir similarly visceral passions when private dreams are thwarted by thoughtless application of burdensome and costly rules and regulations.

Code and covenant drafters, desiring certainty and ease of application, sometimes endeavor to create bright line tests that eliminate the need for any exercise of discretion or human reason. But nobody is that good. No one can write rules and regulations well enough to anticipate all future circumstances that may arise, and we’d all be better off if it wasn’t tried. Room should always be left for the exercise of human reason and an ability to adjust or vary the rules to address unanticipated circumstances more effectively.

Even well-written rules and regulations can cause unnecessary strife and harm when the human beings charged with interpreting them are uncaring, unreasonable, inconsistent or suffering from “Barney Fife” syndrome (Mayberry’s deputy who insecurely exercised absolute power over insignificant matters in a seemingly random and abusive manner). Fortunately, Boulder’s civil servants rarely behave this way, but our codes and regulations, with their painful precision, can occasionally tie their hands.

Then, like the sheriff in Blazing Saddles, the Code is held like a gun to their own heads, “rescuing” them from an uncomfortable moment. This should not happen, but it occasionally does. Laughter and prompt revision is the only cure.

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