Okay. We finally have our land. We have gathered data and made observations. We have developed our master plan. We are ready to start working on it. We shared some of our ideas with our neighbor… and he tells us that the city will not let us do it. “They have laws against it,” he says.
Our momentum comes to a screeching halt. We have been so excited to plan all the things we could and should be doing, that we never stopped to find out if we would actually be allowed to do it.
This is not an uncommon scenario for Permaculturists across many developed countries in the world. Governments have become so large and powerful that they often block projects that would benefit us and our communities, all because the government is trying to “protect and help” us. As a libertarian and a minarchist at heart, this statement really bothers me. However, it is what we have to deal with for now. There are three ways to proceed. We can do nothing, we can move forward with our plans without seeking approval, or we can ask permission from the part of the local government dealing with our concerns (zoning, building, etc.).
Doing nothing is unfortunately what too many people end up doing. They feel frustrated to the point of inaction. Please, don’t let that happen to you!
Next, there are many people who just move forward without gaining permission. I can’t blame them at all. I understand why they do it. While I do not advocate breaking the law, I honestly think this is a feasible plan for many people, depending on the project and their location, but we have to know there may be consequences. The local government may do nothing for years and years, and then decide to investigate and fine you or give you an ultimatum, “Change or remove this, or be fined daily until it is changed or removed!” There are many people who have “lost the farm”, literally, because of this. The areas that can cause significant, or even irrecoverable, set-backs to our endeavors fall into the categories of structures (i.e. houses), waste management (i.e. toilet systems), water management (i.e. water harvesting systems, ponds/dams, etc.), and invasive species (i.e. species that a local area has ruled should not be present in their area of control). There may be a few others I am not thinking of right now, but most other design elements in a Permaculture system will not cause much trouble with local codes or laws; however, anything is possible, so don’t be surprised.
In my situation, considering my future plans, I aim to be pretty “out there” in the public arena. I want to have an education center. I want to sell quality food to the local community. I want to be involved with the local government so that I can help promote sustainable and regenerative laws and codes. I want to help create an area that attracts people like me. I understand that I will be likely be the first one, the test case, and I welcome that. I know I can work well with the local government to achieve my goals without things turning into a battle. I cannot fly under the radar and be in the spotlight at the same time. For most of what I plan to do, I will need to work within the system. I will need to work with the local government as I develop my land.
I do know that there are a lot of Permaculturists who have no idea how to work with their local government. Some of it is not their fault. They have never worked with any local government, so they are just ignorant of what is needed. Other designers, developers, consultants, or Permaculturists are shooting themselves in the foot. They, themselves, are the biggest reason their interactions with local governments go bad. I hope this article will help both groups. While not all-inclucisve, the following 10 things will help make the process significantly easier.
1. Learn to Play the Game
This is quite possibly the hardest thing to grasp when dealing with local government, but it is the most important. We need to learn to play the game of navigating the process of governmental approval. This can be with any aspect of government for just about any project that we have in mind that requires approval or permits. I believe government is way too large and way too intrusive, but it is what we have right now. We should be actively trying to change it, but we still need to work within the system as it is instead of wishing it was another way and not getting anything accomplished. The rest of this article goes into the specifics, but it all starts with this concept. Keep in mind that we do not have to like the game to win it!
2. Understand that the “Government” consists of People, like You and Me
I have spent the last six years working in the government (military), and there are some sour people, but not that many. Almost everyone really does want to do a good job. They want to help people. However, if it is a matter of helping us and losing their job, or not helping us and keeping their job, they will chose the paycheck every time.
We often consider people in the government as “working for the Man” or having “sold out”, but in reality government employees, especially at the level most of us will be dealing, are just people trying to live their lives and keep a job and pay their bills and take care of their family. They are not the enemy. If we are trying to change the world (and I am!), then we need to see everyone as a potential student, a potential convert to Permaculture, a potential ally in our battle. I can’t tell you how many random people I have introduced to Permaculture who seem genuinely interested and want to learn more. They just don’t know about it.
We have to remember that it is not “us against them“. It is not really even “us against us“. It is “us against a system that is too scared to deviate from normal because the people working in the system are just trying to care for themselves and their children the best way they know how.” Hmmm…. sound familiar? (Permaculture Prime Directive: The only ethical decision is to take responsibility for our own existence and that of our children). We just need to show them we are all actually on the same side. We need to show them a better way to care for themselves and their families.
3. Understand the Power of the Gatekeeper.
This is true for just about any interaction with business, or families for that matter. There is a “gatekeeper” who guards the door to the person who will make a decision for or against us. That gatekeeper is often a secretary or personal assistant in business and government (it may be a parent or sibling in a family). If we treat that gatekeeper as an obstacle in our way to getting what we want, then we are way more likely to fail. However, if we can make that gatekeeper our ally… well, then if the decision-maker is trying to decide what to do with us, a gatekeeper who likes us may make drop in the right words and at the right time and make all the difference. Again, the gatekeeper is just another person and just another potential Permaculturist! Be kind to the gatekeeper. They often work very hard with little appreciation.
4. Monitor your Expectations
If we go anywhere looking for a fight or expecting a denial, then we will probably get it. I don’t buy into the “putting positive energy out into the universe” kind of thing that some celebrities advocate, but I do think that positive thinking and positive expectations are extremely helpful. We have to envision the end before we can start at the beginning. If our end vision is a denial and a long battle with a local government to fight for approval, then we will probably get just that.
5. Consider your Appearance
Yes, our appearance matters! Should it? Ideally, in a perfect world, our appearance should not matter. Of, course, we all say that. But we are not living in a perfect world. If we are being honest, no matter how “open” or “caring” or whatever it is that we claim to be, appearances matter. If not to us, because we are so “enlightened”, it matters to pretty much everyone else on earth.
Let’s be realistic. If we are walking at night in an area of a large city that we were told was dangerous, and we saw a large, hairy man in ripped clothing and smelling of body odor walking toward us… How would we feel? Now, what if, in that same scenario, a “clean-cut” man in a suit and tie approached us with a genuine smile?
This is the classic point that Permaculturists fail with local governments.
If we walk in to a building permit office, and we are wearing a 20 year-old t-shirt from the local Goodwill, stained jeans, dreadlocks, a ratty-looking beard, and smelling of body odor (because even natural deodorants are too “unnatural” for us, man), then we are already setting ourselves up for failure. That employee initially thinks we are homeless and looking for a handout, and we are shocked when they are not that helpful to us. Conversely, if we walk into that same office after a shower and a shave, wearing clean, casual-business clothing, we will be taken seriously from the start. First impressions are lasting impressions, and they matter!
6. Watch your Mouth
Avoiding profanity, racist, sexist, or any other off-color jokes should be obvious. Unfortunately, it is not. It is highly unprofessional to speak this way. Even if the government employee is speaking this way, we should avoid it. We should be above reproach. In addition, we should also try to avoid slang or other catchphrases. “Dude”, “Man”, “wicked”, “rad”, “far out”, or any other phrases associated with hippies or those who regularly partake of illegal substances (i.e. drugs), should be avoided. Is there really anything wrong with this? No, not at all. But it often gives the appearance that you are dumber than you are, or that you may not be all that trustworthy. I have my own set of catchphrases, but when I am being professional, I avoid using them. This is not being fake. This is not pretending to be something you are not. It is just reality. It is, as I said before, learning to play the game.
7. Check your Attitude
If we go into a permit office with a smile and a friendly attitude, we may still get a denial, but we may not. There are many “gray” areas in government, and these have to do with interpretation of sometimes vague ordinances and laws. If the person who is making that decision likes us, or is at least not annoyed by us, then we have a chance they will make a decision on those “gray” areas in our favor. Besides, having a good attitude is just the right way to live. If we are a grumpy Permaculturist, then maybe we don’t quite understand how Permaculture works. If we are an up-beat Permaculturist, who seems eager to do the right thing, then even if the government official denies our request, they may take the time to show us what we need to do to get an approval.
8. Share your Agenda
Government employees will often assume we are wanna-be hippies who are trying to get everyone to live in a commune and smoke marijuana. They will often see an approval of our request (whatever that may be) as a step in the wrong direction for their community, an invitation to a bunch of lazy, pot-smoking, navel-gazers to relocated to that employee’s neighborhood. However, if we present our request with an explanation of our agenda, we can circumvent the development of their fears. We need to explain that Permaculture is about creating a sustainable future of our children. I often use my one sentence definition of Permaculture as an introduction: Permaculture is the science uses nature as a model for designing sustainable agricultural systems. Obviously, Permaculture is way bigger than just this, but my explanation has opened the way to many long conversations. This is not a simple sentence, so I say is slowly. I want that person to understand what I am saying; I am not just saying it to make myself sound intelligent. I purposely use the term “science” which implies research and testing and validation – which Permaculture has! I purposely use the term “agriculture” which implies hard work and jobs and profit… things that local governments get excited about. I also purposely use the word “sustainable” which implies “being green” and steers away from the idea of a “crazy, tree-hugging, eco-terrorist”. Most local governments want to be, or at least want it to appear that they are trying to be, “green” or environmentally friendly.
9. Know the Law
This has two advantages. If we understand what is or is not allowed, then we know where to start. I have heard both Bill Mollison and Geoff Lawton say that with more restrictions come more elegant designs. They meant land, climate, and government restrictions. If we are living in an area that is zoned residential and not agricultural, we are not going to start with cattle. It would be a lot easier to start with rabbits. Maybe we are assuming that animals are not allowed, but in reality the area allows chickens and ducks already. This is part of the basic research needed when we are doing our initial design.
Secondly, if we know the laws, and a local administrator denies us unfairly, we can politely tell them that we are familiar with the current laws that allow (whatever it is). For instance, we may say, “Ma’am, I am so sorry to bother you, but somebody under you must have made a mistake. I was fined for having chickens, but according to City Code 145 paragraph 2, I am allowed to have no more than five chickens or ducks. I have three beautiful hens that produce eggs for my family. Oh, I see that from that photo on your desk that you have grandchildren. My chickens love kids. You should bring them by sometime, and they can meet my chickens and feed them if they want. So, how do I go about getting this fine reversed?”
Again, this is not being false. It is playing the game. It may even convert some more people to Permaculture!
10. Learn how to Take “No” for an Answer
This is a very important point. It is almost inevitable that we will get told no for something if we are doing things right. Common-sense, sustainable, Permaculture systems are often at odds with the status quo. Our modern system is failing us on so many levels, and it has been so knotted up in bureaucracy and special interest laws that we will be frequently fighting an uphill battle. We will prevail, but it will take time. Every battle matters, and a no is part of the battle, not the end.
If we are told no, we need to be gracious. We need to be polite. We cannot get angry and stomp out of the room shouting that they will be hearing from our lawyers. All that will do is guarantee a future denial (battle) and make it more difficult for any other Permaculturist in the future.
Most of the time, the person who says no will say no because they are trying to follow the law as they understand it. They don’t want to lose their job by approving something that is illegal or dangerous. If we are denied, we need to politely inquire why. Get it in writing if possible. Ask them to show us the city or county code or law. Ask them for their advice. Ask them what they would recommend. They may tell us something like, “Well, if you really wanted to get this done, you could add another support column here and here, and that should work,” or “You know, the city council has been talking about changing this, but no one ever attends the meetings. I bet if you went and stated your case, they may change that ordinance.” We will never know if we don’t ask.
If they give us a poor answer (e.g. “you should just stop trying”), then we should thank them for their time and leave. Then we will start working on a different approach. We should ask other people in the area how to handle it. We can then either try to find a work-around within the existing law, try to change the law, or, as a last resort, chose one of the nuclear options (see below).
The Nuclear Options
So what do we do if we have followed all the above advice, we have taken no over and over again, and there is no hope in site? There are three plans of action that I consider “nuclear options”. Once we choose to go with one of these options, there really is no going back. We have opened Pandora’s Box, and things cannot be the same afterwards.
Go Underground: We can kindly thank the local government for the help, or lack of, with our project. We admit defeat. We go back to our land and we do it anyway. This is a dangerous option, because we are now “on the radar” of the local government. We have shared our plans with them, and so they know what we desire to do. If we move fast, and our project is not glaringly obvious, we may get away with it. But then again, they may come and investigate at a later date, and we are stuck. This is an option that takes a lot of nerve, and it often does not work well for the land owner.
Media Blitz: The modern world is now one that is deeply influenced by social media. We can go the traditional route and try and get a local (or national!) news agency to let us tell our story. We may make a video or create a photo that goes viral and motivates people from around the world to email or call the local government, forcing the local government to change their minds. This has been successful many times. However, it is not always successful. For this to work, we need to be on the right side of the law. If a local government official make a decision on a gray area or makes a decision with no law to support it, then a media campaign can work very well. However, if we want to do something, no matter how noble, that is obviously against the law or against a clearly written city/county ordinance, then we will most likely fail. This option takes courage and a personality that will not mind getting a lot of hate mail, because this is bound to happen. A media blitz can also be very successful in changing laws that are in debate, for example when a city council is on the fence about changing a law. There is power in numbers. There is power in a well-crafted story.
Vote with your Feet: If we see no alternative, the final act of defiance may be to move. This is a very big decision. We can chose to leave an area under an oppressive local government and move to an area of more freedom. The more roots we put down in a location, the more difficult this option becomes. If we do choose to leave, I highly recommend letting the local government know that you are leaving and why. An “open letter” published by a local newspaper or picked up by a local blogger can have a big impact on what voters do during the next election. That won’t help us much, but it can make us feel a little better about the process.
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