Because I said so: Weston tells produce vendor to bag it

There’s an interesting story playing out in the Village of Weston. A fellow has been running a produce stand in the parking lot of Betty’s Lunch. We allow such stands in the City of Wausau, but Weston has an ordinance in place that prohibits them.

From following the coverage and the online chatter, it appears that the target of the restriction may have been the makeshift fireworks stands that crop up every summer leading up to Independence Day. Wausau allows those, too – not because we think they’re a great idea or anything, but just because we’ve been able to avoid needing restrictions. We limited rummage sales in recent history because some people were turning their yards into semi-permanent flea markets and it was driving their neighbors nuts. If you’re interfering with someone else’s rights and property value by exercising your own, then it’s something that needs to be reasonably arbitrated with everyone’s legitimate interests in mind.

Anyway, I have to tell you that even though it’s none of my business, this is about business and rights — and Weston would be better served if they re-opened their zoning ordinance to search for obvious unintended consequences, rather than to assume that they’ve already got things right. Looking at it from the outside, I don’t think that they do.

Years ago, I led a drive to change Wausau’s sign and sidewalk obstructions ordinance because we were flat-out too restrictive. It took the better part of two years to get it done, but now downtown businesses can again have overhanging signs, sandwich boards and café tables. They’re useful and people like them. More importantly, they work. The desire to “clean up the place” on the part of some shouldn’t supercede the need for people to conduct business.

I especially like farmers markets. I’ve studied them with the NeighborWorks organization and I’ve visited them all over the place on four continents and in more than a dozen countries. Markets and stands provide a low-barrier entry point into the economy for people. What got me especially interested was seeing that we had a lot of immigrants coming who had limited English skills, but they had great skills in growing things and displaying them for sale. There really aren’t requirements for a common language in markets. Everybody understands the concept of “You give me the money and I give you the stuff.” I’ve done this in many places where all that was necessary for the transaction to take place was a vendor pointing at a calculator.  Because of all of that, we should be far more interested in encouraging these enterprises than in making them more difficult.

Weston wants to move that produce stand to their designated farmers market area on the grounds of the Village Hall, where they will charge a $100 annual vendor fee. While that’s an accommodation, sometimes it’s better to just let business happen where it happens instead of trying to exert too much control. The Betty’s Lunch location looks like a good spot that is close to the customers. More importantly, the people actually involved think it’s a good place. It provides some synergy for the hosting business (something that won’t be true of the village hall grounds.) I don’t blame the village staff for enforcing the ordinance because that’s their job. But this is a call for policymakers to re-examine their philosophy.

This isn’t about whether some rule or ordinance might be a good idea because it covers every possible contingency or situation that could theoretically come up. The question is whether the public good really REQUIRES the restriction or whether it would be better to let people enjoy their rights with as little interference as possible. That’s something that I’m not so sure has always been our main policy goal, but it should be. I mean, the only reason this guy can’t run his produce stand is because a commission somewhere got together and decided he couldn’t, right? It’s not really a traffic safety hazard or an eyesore or a public health issue or anything else. The slippery slope argument is far more convincing to me in opposition to overbearing regulations than in support of them, in this case.

You don’t have to love things to keep them legal; you just have to put up with them and understand that by protecting the rights of others, you’re also protecting your own. Too often, government bodies seem to presume that they are in the business of doling out rights and privileges as if these things didn’t already exist unless ordained by them. That’s backwards. The burden should be on government to thoroughly justify its restrictions, instead of placing the onus on the individual to show why something ought to be allowed. And in a tossup of interests, it ought to go to the individual.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: