Look before you leap: The law of unintended consequences

“For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction,” said the wise Sir Isaac Newton.

In Tampa, we have always believed the laws of nature don’t necessarily apply. Unfortunately, by the time we realize the unintended consequences of policy decisions, we are already in a troubled situation. Once an unintended consequence arises, the last thing we want to endure is a massive government bureaucracy. There are two recent regulations that demonstrate this point, and both show how good intentions can go bad.

First is Tampa’s third rail of politics: trees. In this city, if you don’t take the position that you would throw yourself in front of a tree to protect it, you must be an evil builder, or worse, a Republican. So Tampa did what was politically popular and City Council passed a tree ordinance. This ordinance has led to lawsuits, mental breakdowns by homeowners, and surprise, surprise, fewer trees. That’s correct; a tree canopy study will be released in the next few weeks confirming this reality.

Now let us look at why. The reason is simple; City Council passed an ordinance that stated that if you plant certain species of trees, when they reach a certain height you need government approval to remove them, or even worse, you may need City Council's approval. The desire was to protect the existing trees. The law, however, has discouraged anyone from planting more of these species of trees, typically shade oak trees. After all, by planting these new trees you are not just planting a tree, you are ceding control of your property to the government. We all know that there is nothing like having to deal with a government bureaucrat to accomplish a simple task. So people started planting non-protected trees; away went the oaks and in came more fruit trees and more invasive species that are not deemed “protected” under the guidelines. Why plants oaks when I can plant other species that have the same nice appearance as oaks and grow just as fast and provide shade? In addition, I know that somewhere down the line, when I go to expand my home or even tear it down to rebuild a new home, I won’t have to seek the approval or deal with the bureaucracy of the government.

I am certain some will argue that we lost trees because our laws are too lax and if we take a tougher approach through additional regulation, we can save the remaining trees. It is my opinion that if City Council were to remove all the current laws, such an action would actively encourage the planting of these shade oak trees or other non-invasive species and we will see an explosion of new canopy growth.

Second, let’s look at the sign ordinance. Tampa has some of the ugliest streetscapes. It is important for everyone to realize the importance of signage to a commercial business. Signage is the key to attracting business and serving as a landmark for where a particular business is located. It is extremely important for drivers to be able to locate a business prior to approaching the structure as to allow for ample time to yield and turn into the parking lot.

Unfortunately, City Council proceeded to do with the signs what they did with trees. They said that if you have an ugly large sign, you can keep it until it falls down. They cannot require you to remove a current sign (unless it is a safety concern), otherwise it would be deemed a government taking and they would have to pay you, the property owner. If you want to put up a nice, pretty sign to replace the old ugly one, however, it must be smaller than your old sign. So if you currently have a 10x15 foot sign (150 square feet), you can replace it with a ground-based marker that is a 5x5 foot sign, or a 25 square foot sign. (It is not quite this simple, because signage is now measured by lettering and not the full sign size, but regardless, it is less space.)

The result is that everyone keeps the crappy old signs no matter how bad they look because the large signage is now a commodity. City Council has made the old signs more valuable because you can’t put them up anymore. A more effective policy would have been to say that these old signs look bad, we want pretty signs, and we want to encourage you to put them up as soon as possible. The logic should have continued, so if you spend the money to replace your old sign with a new sign, you can have at least the same amount of square footage of signage. This type of policy would entice landowners and business owners to replace their old signs in a timely manner.

The reason for both of these stories is because in Tampa, we have become a society of mob rule. Policy is determined by which way the wind is blowing at any particular time. Our leaders need to start managing from a macro level instead of a micro level. It appears that the administration has stopped doing critical analysis, and if we want to be a leader into the next century, we need to think through all of our choices, prior to making policy decisions that may end up with unintended consequences. It is with simple thought and analysis that Tampa can regain its competitive edge and fix it now, if not for us then for our children.

(photo by Ben Ostrowsky)

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