Are City Permits Up to Code?

If you’ve ever remodeled your house, re-done your kitchen, or added onto your home, you are most likely familiar with getting a building permit from your city. The idea of needing a permit or license to do something is not new—it extends from home businesses to protests and everything in between. Though a bit of a nuisance to obtain, many of these permits have few requirements and are easy to secure. But what about when that isn’t the case? What about the times when the process for obtaining a permit takes months, or even years?

Too often, whether or not you can get a permit, and when, is totally up to the discretion of a bureaucrat. The rules are vague and the deadlines unclear—and there is nothing a person can do about it.

The remedy for this problem is to look at what the U.S. Supreme Court has already said about permits in cases like Staub v. City of Baxley. In that particular case, the Supreme Court said that the basic requirements for city permits extend to any law that “makes the peaceful enjoyment of freedoms which the Constitution guarantees contingent upon… a permit or license.”

And what are those requirements?

  1. Clear Criteria: Vague standards like “good cause” cannot be used to deny someone a permit. Instead it must be clear why a permit was denied and how a permit could be approved.
  2. Explicit Deadlines: The timeline of when a city would decide whether a permit would be granted must be abundantly clear.
  3. Appeals Process: Everyone must be guaranteed their day in court if a permit is denied

Cities in Utah too often do not follow these simple requirements, creating an unfair system. Permits were intended to be straightforward and a means to protect the safety and rights of others. But over time they have been used to restrict opportunity and freedom. The Utah Legislature should consider codifying these requirements laid out by the U.S. Supreme Court. Then fairness can prevail and city permitting could be brought into compliance.