Last time I told the story of Dan Ludwig, a cabinetmaker who came to America in 1955, built himself a big yellow workshop in his back yard, and went on with the business of making a living. But times have changed, though, and not for the better. Here’s how things might go for Dan if he’d been an immigrant in the year 2015 instead of in 1955.
|A typical zoning map (this one is for|
Barnesville, Georgia—a town of 6,755 people).
Sorry, Dan, you're not zoned Commercial.
Dan is at the counter of his local planning department, applying for a permit to build his workshop. The exchange goes like this:
BUILDING OFFICIAL: (staring into a computer screen): Hmm, your property isn’t zoned for commercial or light industrial usage--you’ll need to get a variance (the official grabs a thick sheaf of forms and hands it to a bewildered Dan). Here’s the application. They don’t grant many of these variances, but of course you’re welcome to try.
You’ll need to contact all your neighbors within a 300 foot radius so they’ll have an opportunity to comment on your proposal. You’ll also need to give the Design Review Board complete drawings of the workshop, so we recommend that you hire an architect if you can’t do it yourself. You’ll also need to submit photos of the twenty houses closest to yours so we can verify that your workshop’s design is in keeping with the character of the neighborhood.
|An application for design review|
(Hilton Head, South Carolina, in this case)
The design review process can take
weeks or months, and typically
has to be completed before you can
even apply for a building permit.
We’ll need a color board showing the proposed finishes for the workshop, including the roof color, the trim color, and the color and material of the windows. By the way, just a friendly suggestion regarding the color choices--the design review board likes colors that are tasteful and harmonious. You know--beiges, tans, whites. What’s that, Dan? Yellow? No, I don’t think they’ll go for yellow. You’ll probably want to tone it down a little. Talk to your architect. He’ll know exactly what the Design Review Board likes to see.
Now, this workshop you’re proposing is ten feet tall and it’s near the neighbor’s property line, so you’ll have to provide a shadow study demonstrating that its height won’t adversely impact your neighbor’s natural light. Also, will those woodworking machines be noisy? They will? Well, here’s a copy of our noise ordinance. Basically, the louder the noise, the less time you’re allowed to produce it. What’s that? Your table saw will be running a lot of the time? Well, you’ll probably need to do extensive soundproofing. You may want to hire an acoustical engineer to prove that your shop’s noise won’t be a nuisance to the neighborhood, or the staff is likely to deny your variance.
|Flow chart offered by one municipality|
(Winnipeg, Manitoba) showing the
process to be followed in applying
for a building permit. This just proves
that Canadians are no smarter
When you have your submittal package together, Dan, you can get on the Planning Commission’s agenda. They meet once a month. If you don’t get an approval the first time—and you probably shouldn’t plan on that—we’ll carry your application over to the next month, and so on. Remember, any of your neighbors can object to your building a workshop, so you should probably do some lobbying. What’s that? Your English isn’t so good? Well, you can always hire a consultant to present your project for you. Okay, now here’s a schedule of the submittal fees....
And so it goes. Most likely, our present-day Dan Ludwig will go home and forget about building his shop. One less middle-class entrepreneur on the roster.
Next time: Why it’s so tough to get anything built these days, and a simple regulatory change that could help break the logjam.