Procrastination as rejection in the permitting process

The best part about being an adult is that you don’t have to ask permission to do things. That is, until you realize that the government still requires people to get permission for a whole host of seemingly benign activities. And when it comes to getting permission, governments can be even worse than parents. 

In 2019, a young couple living in Utah County had finally saved enough money to purchase their first home. The house was perfect. Not only was it in a location they loved, but the layout perfectly accommodated their plans to convert the basement into an accessory apartment. Even better, the property fit all the legal requirements and was zoned to allow for a legal accessory apartment. Their creative approach would take some extra work up front but in the long run it would allow them to afford their monthly mortgage payment.

As it turned out, the manual labor required to convert the space would not be the most difficult part of the project. After putting in the kitchen, adding some drywall, and finalizing all the necessary requirements for a legal accessory apartment, they applied for permission from the city to rent out the portion of their home. Then they waited. They waited for several months without hearing a word from the city. Of course, they followed up with the city but they were passed around to different employees, each insisting that what was required for the next step was not their job.

If you have ever had to apply for a permit you probably realize that local governments are not always subject to the same checks and balances that we would expect to find in a more scrutinized form of government. When it comes to granting permits, many entities function without a deadline and thus without an important check on their power. Without a specified timeline, a permit granting entity can take as long as they would like when making a determination on a permit application.

One would hope that the people behind the permitting process would exercise good faith in accomplishing the necessary inspections and paperwork as quickly as possible. However, in some cases, the lack of a deadline can function as an indirect rejection. If an entity has no deadline by which they must respond, there’s no accountability for those who indefinitely delay the approval or denial of a permit.

In the case of the Utah County couple, their permit was granted more than a year later. They lost out on several months of legally renting out their accessory apartment but, fortunately, they eventually obtained their permit. In other cases, time is not on the side of the applicant. 

In Arizona, Lee and Patricia Sepanek had a holiday tradition of setting up a Christmas light display at their home. When neighbors, friends, and tourists would come to see the display, the couple would serve hot chocolate and cookies. This tradition continued for several years before the city alerted the couple that they were violating city law. The couple attempted to sift through the code and obtain the appropriate permissions but the decision on the permit was delayed long enough that Christmas came and went. 

The local community was outraged by the incident and it prompted the Goldwater Institute of Arizona to introduce the Permit Freedom Act which, among other things, requires a permit granting entity to have an explicit deadline by which they will make a determination on a permit application. The legislation passed with broad bipartisan support.

The permitting process can profoundly impact people—financially and often emotionally—but their experiences are rarely publicized enough to spur change. Without strict guidelines that protect the applicant, the permitting process can be quite problematic, even if it doesn’t make the front page. 

Utah law should be updated as Arizona’s was, to make certain that if a person must apply for permission to exercise their freedoms, then they are entitled to a prompt response. In the absence of a response, the assumption should be that people are free to continue as they please.