Making Sustainability Legal: 2011 Progress Report

Cleaning out the fridge.
This post is part of the research project: Making Sustainability Legal
chiot's run, flickr

chiot's run, flickr

Six months ago, we launched the Making Sustainability Legal project arguing that, although the Northwest could benefit from a top-to-bottom remodel of its public-policy house, deep political divides and starvation budgets make big reforms unlikely soon. In the meantime, maybe we can clean out the fridge?

Making Sustainability Legal is about pulling moldy regulations out of the back of our law books and composting them. Dozens of regulations, whatever virtue they may have had in their prime, now do little but block northwesterners from adopting affordable, common-sense, green solutions.

We’ve since completed case studies on 16 rules that are past their sell-by dates—rules that keep white page phone directories piling up on doorsteps; inject toxic chemicals into couches and crib mattresses (and children and pets); hobble pay-as-you-drive auto insurance; make parking spaces absurdly abundant at drinking establishments while keeping taxis scarce and expensive; hamstring car-sharing, bike-sharing, food carts, and natural hair care; slow the local food economy and have retarded the adoption of rain barrels and graywater recycling; prevent cities from calming traffic on neighborhood streets and from investing in rain gardens and other green infrastructure; keep poor teens from experiencing wild lands; and ban the simplest renewable energy system around, the clothesline. (That’s right: hundreds of communities ban clotheslines!)

In the next few weeks, we’ll publish more. Contributor Alyse Nelson is writing about transit rules that restrict baby strollers. Intern Chris LaRoche is examining hotel regulations that may hinder cheap, green travel alternatives such as couchsurfing and Airbnb. He’s also studying legal barriers to using downspout water for flushing toilets. Intern Valerie Pacino, meanwhile, is following up on California’s counterproductive furniture flammability rule, and volunteer Jon Howland has good news about clotheslines’ legal status. After that, we will burrow into local codes that make housing cost more but shelter fewer.

The longer we look in the fridge, the more outdated rules we find. Still, for all that remains to be done, the project is already delivering results. More than 20,000 times, someone has viewed a Making Sustainability Legal article on Sightline Daily, and three of the posts—including Jake Kennon’s piece about helmet laws that hamper bike sharing—ranked among our most read of the year. The project’s total audience has been several times larger, because most of the articles have drawn media coverage and re-posting elsewhere.

Photo courtesy of Amber Starks, by Stephen Gilbert, Make up: Jenn Buslach, styling: Rebecca Westby, at Oaks Amusement Park (PDX).

Among those thousands of readers, some are stepping forward and taking personal responsibility for fridge cleaning. In Licensed to Work, for example, we documented excessive permitting requirements for certain occupations, notably African-style hair braiding. Amber Starks (pictured), a model and hair braider in Portland, read the article and decided to champion reform herself. With our support, she is now leaving a flaming trail through legislative offices in Oregon, and she’s unearthed outdated restrictions that we weren’t aware of in Washington, too. We’ll tell her whole story soon—and how you can help. Stay tuned!

Our June series-launching expose on a USDA Forest Service rule that blocks youth-service organizations from taking disadvantaged teens on wilderness trips has turned heads inside the Forest Service and the National Park Service. We recently adapted the article into an op-ed for High Country News, which several newspapers in Montana and across the West have published. It has kick-started action from a reader who works for the Congressional committee that oversees the Forest Service and from another reader who staffs the Western Governors Association. Plans are afoot! No action from the Forest Service has emerged yet, but our fingers are crossed.

The most-clicked of our Making Sustainability Legal posts (on our own site at least), and the fourth most-read Sightline blog post of 2011, was Vince Houmes’s Freeing Taxis. It went red hot in the media, especially in Vancouver, BC. Our argument that tight taxi rules make cabs scarce and expensive landed us on the front page of the free transit daily Vancouver 24 Hours. The story also ran in the Vancouver Sun and Georgia Straight and on the province’s top radio and TV news stations, both public and private. Our argument worried cabbies enough that their guild commissioned a defensive response from a local professor.

It shouldn’t take an engineering study for city hall to lower speed limits on side streets, we argued in Letting Cities Slow Traffic and a related Seattle Times op-ed. The Economist followed quickly, echoing our arguments. British Columbia, Idaho, and Oregon already act on this principle, but Washington still dictates residential speed limits to its cities. Aiming to fix this problem is Washington Rep. Cindy Ryu (D-Shoreline), whose “Neighborhood Safe Speeds Bill” (Bill 1217) has good prospects in the 2012 legislature, according to one commentator. Its lead advocates at the Bicycle Alliance of Washington are hopeful, and they could use help from Washington residents. Contact them to lend your voice.

California’s obscure flammability standard for foam furnishings has no fire-safety benefits but does cause manufacturers to load foam up with toxic flame retardants. Our article, and its photo sequel, have informed thousands more people of this outdated policy. Intern Valerie Pacino is researching a series of new articles that may help California campaigners to defang the rule in 2012. Readers in California, and elsewhere, will have chances to help soon.

The option to rent out your car’s idle hours, which we wrote about in Legalize Personal Car-Sharing, is closer to reality in Cascadia. Car-sharing pioneer Getaround is launching in Portland soon, thanks to a federal research grant and our successful effort to fix insurance-law obstacles in 2011. A coalition in Washington State aims to replicate this win in the 2012 legislature with a bill sponsor by Rep. Zack Hudgins (D–Tukwila). Many insurers, the insurance commissioner, and a crew of others coordinated by the Transportation Choices Coalition (TCC) are supporting the bill. It’s a diverse campaign, involving not only Sightline but also our sometimes-adversaries at the conservative Washington Policy Center. (Readers everywhere in the United States can sign up with Getaround or other car sharing companies such as RelayRides so that they’ll be notified as soon as these services are available in their locales.)

Meanwhile, TCC and Climate Solutions are promoting a complementary bill to legalize and encourage by-the-mile auto insurance in Washington. Rep. Cindy Ryu (D–Shoreline) is the legislative sponsor. Washington readers can contact TCC to join the team in support of both insurance reforms.

Our argument that people should be able to opt out of white-pages deliveries has, with the help of citizen activists (including Sightline board treasurer Jeanette Henderson), caught the attention of legislators in Olympia. There’s talk of a bill soon, and we’ll share more when the wheels are in motion. I discussed the proposal with legislators from Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, and Montana as well.

Since we first published Unbanning Clotheslines, we’ve added more than 200 community clothesline bans to our North American map of laundry-drying prohibitions. (Keep telling us about new ones and we’ll keep adding them!) Meanwhile, Washington Rep. Deb Eddy (D-Kirkland) has a right-to-dry bill drafted, and Seattle City Councilor Mike O’Brien is considering introducing a municipal right-to-dry ordinance in 2012. We’ve also been trying to flag down a pro-solar, pro-bono attorney in Oregon (do you know one?) to challenge clothesline bans in court. State law there already appears to make them void and unenforceable.

Finally, the idea of the fridge-cleaning project has cross-pollinated with similar ventures. The City of Seattle launched its own Making Sustainability Legal evaluation with Eric de Place’s help. The effort has yielded seven reform proposals to date, earning considerable attention from the media. The city council is likely to take them up early in 2012. We’ve also given advice to a similar undertaking in Oregon, as well as to a nascent “industrial development district” effort that will experiment with creative approaches to regulating industrial lands in King County.

Reader input and support has helped fuel this entire undertaking. Several of the case studies, such as clothesline bans, came straight from your suggestions. So please keep telling us about ill-conceived old rules that are hamstringing your affordable, green innovations!

We are a community-supported resource and we can’t do this work without you!

Comments

  1. Neil says:

    I absolutely love, love, love this initiative from Sightline – well done all!

    A Cascadai of complete streets and mixed uses would not only have a lower carbon footprint, but would be a more pleasant and interesting place to live, work and play. As owners of the streets and setters of zoning laws, local governments are the barrier and the problem.

  2. Tim McGuire says:

    My wife was telling me this morning that their are often times certain zoning laws prohibiting the building of homes that are smaller than a predetermined # of square feet. What is wrong with building a small home?

    http://www.tumbleweedhouses.com/

    Great initiative.

    Tim

  3. Alan Durning says:

    Thanks for your note, Tim.

    I’ve never heard of such a rule, so please tell us more! The Tumbleweed Houses are fascinating. There are lots restrictions on putting backyard cottages into existing neighbhorhoods, but that’s because they’re secondary dwellings. (We’ve written about this issue a number of times.)

    I wonder if you’re right, that there are restrictions on primary residences. I know that there are all kinds of rules about what’s got to be there: a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom closet. But I’m not aware of minimum square footage requirements.

    Others?

  4. David Wayne Johnson says:

    Jefferson County Department of Community Development, under a grant from the EPA, will be holding land use development focus group meetings next month to determine what regulations and policies are working and which ones aren’t and what new strategies and regulations that promote Low Impact Development can be implemented to replace outdated code, and also make it easier to get through the development permitting process.

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