Local and state governments in Utah require that you obtain a permit for a wide range of activities—everything from home improvement projects and large gatherings to business and pet ownership. Requiring a permit means that a person must meet certain criteria and submit an application before engaging in the regulated activity.
When permit requirements are unnecessarily cumbersome, they contribute to harmful unintended consequences.
Permits create an additional barrier to the activity for which they are required. When a barrier makes something more difficult, people are incentivized to do one of two things: either they will opt out of the activity or they will do it, but bypass the barrier. The more difficult the barrier, the more likely those two options become. Each can be problematic.
In the first instance, permits can regulate activities that are beneficial to the community. If those permits are excessively cumbersome, the process can disincentivize these favorable activities.
If a homeowner wants to complete a home improvement project but finds that it would require a difficult permit, they might decide against it. It’s possible that this project, paint job, or addition would increase property values. Similarly, if an entrepreneur has a new business idea but the necessary permits prove difficult to obtain, they might abandon the idea altogether or introduce it in a neighboring community with friendlier processes.
When this happens, an activity that could benefit the community and the individual is sabotaged by regulations that are perceived to be more trouble than they are worth. Permits are not serving an appropriate purpose if they disincentivize safe and beneficial activities.
But permits are not all bad. When an activity poses a threat of irreversible harm to a group or individual, it makes sense to require some preemptive approval. Unfortunately, poorly-administered permits also undermine this purpose.
When permits are unreasonably difficult to obtain, the process can encourage dangerous activities. Say, for example, a homeowner wants to build a deck on the outside of their home. If done poorly, this could prove to be a dangerous endeavor. If the requirements are excessively burdensome, people may just decide to circumvent the permitting process altogether.
Difficult permitting incentivizes people to do things under the radar. If the activity engaged in is not dangerous, it often goes unnoticed. However, if the permit requirements really were built to govern dangerous activities, these permits have failed in their purpose when they are avoided and the dangerous activities continue, potentially harming others.
Not long ago, Utah witnessed an especially dramatic case of potentially dangerous activity continuing unpermitted. A Holladay man, Martin Bone, was arrested in October when the police discovered 20 unpermitted Burmese Pythons in his home. Bone’s permits had expired 6 years ago and were not renewed. Meanwhile, other animals, debris, and smells were accumulating around the home, and the city eventually intervened.
When people engage in activities without obtaining the necessary permits, the blame cannot be solely attributed to the government. However, the pragmatic truth remains that when permits are difficult to obtain, confusing, or cumbersome, people are less likely to obtain them.
There is a compelling case to be made for permits, but if they are not facilitated pursuant to some common-sense guidelines, they miss the mark.
In order to be effective, permits should have clear criteria governing whether they will or will not be granted. If permits have clear and straightforward requirements, applicants will not be so susceptible to the confusion and stress that encourages them to avoid permits or forgo projects. Permits should have explicit timelines detailing when they will be granted or denied. With a timeline in place, applicants have a process they can rely on and plan for. In the case that a permit is denied, there should be a process to appeal the decision. An appeal process creates a system that is fair and can be trusted.
If permit requirements conform to these guidelines, they will provide a clear and reliable framework for citizens to work with. Utahns should have a framework to guard against cumbersome permit requirements that will ultimately result in negative unintended consequences.