The border between Mexico and the United States is visible from outer space. That’s how stark the difference is. It’s an ongoing experiment in two forms of governance. The United States was shaped by the Magna Carta, Mexico was not.
In the U.S. and California, a citizen is innocent until proven guilty, while in Mexico, a citizen is guilty until proven innocent. This is the fundamental difference in the two systems. It’s true for every contact a citizen has with their government.
Imagine trying to get a building permit someplace like Mexico. Government has complete discretion whether you could do anything at all. You have to show why you should be allowed to build. This is a system ripe with uncertainty, abuse, and corruption.
Here, it’s up to government to show why you shouldn’t be allowed to build what you want on your property. There are zoning and building codes to regulate how it’s done. Once your application meets all those codes, government has no choice but to issue a permit. This is a system built on the police powers of the state to provide for the health, safety and general welfare of the population.
Health and safety is clear in the idea that you don’t put explosives factories next door to schools, you do need established setbacks of buildings from property lines to provide for light, air and access, and we don’t want flammable roofs in fire zones. Once these reasonable standards have been met, the needs of government’s legitimate police powers have been satisfied.
Sometimes these standards aren’t reasonable. They become detached from the needs of health, safety and the general welfare. Just because a city doesn’t like narrow houses on 25-foot-wide lots, doesn’t mean it can establish side yard setbacks that make it impossible to build on a single lot. That would be an unreasonable taking of private property rights, requiring compensation.
Design review in Laguna Beach is no longer tethered to the need to provide for the public health, safety, and general welfare. There is no general welfare in an appointed board making decisions concerning such vague and arbitrary concepts like view preservation, privacy, neighborhood character, mass and scale. Where’s the health and safety in requiring a certain window trim color or the size of a patio in a back yard? It’s resulted in a system ripe with uncertainty, abuse and corruption.
Design Review needs to be replaced with a clear system of rules that can be administered ministerially—a system neighbors can live with and bullies can’t.
J.J. Gasparotti moved to Laguna Beach with his family when he was 11 years old. He has loved it ever since.