How Regulation Can Build Community

Jul 30, 2014

Andrew Downs, Director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at IPFW.
Credit Courtesy / Andrew Downs

Bloomington, Ind., recently adopted an ordinance that requires all chain businesses to meet a visual standard.  The visual standard means that chain businesses such as restaurants and retail outlets most likely will not be able to build their usual buildings or modify buildings to look like their usual buildings.  Instead, the businesses will have to complement the architecture, façade, scale, and signage of their neighbors.  The ordinance applies only to downtown and an area west of the Indiana University campus. 

Some will cheer and others will boo.  Those cheering will talk about preserving the appearance and history of these areas.  Those booing will talk about another government regulation that is hampering their ability to do business.

There are a small number of people who would like businesses to be able to operate with no regulation.  Everyone else thinks there should be some sort of regulation.  The real question to ask is not whether or not there should be regulation, but what the regulations should be.  One type of regulation deals with how land is used. 

We may not be able to quote the regulations, but we know many of them.  For example, we know large and loud manufacturing facilities should not be located next to homes.  We also experience the regulations on a daily basis.  Most of the homes we live in had to be a certain number of feet from the street and the neighboring homes when they were built.  Most of the buildings where we work had to have a certain number of parking spots when they opened.  Regulations like these change over time and are supposed to promote public safety along with the highest and best use of the land.  The end result is supposed to be a growing and vibrant community. 

It is not only governments that regulate land use.  Some housing additions have restrictive covenants that regulate siding, sheds, swing sets, chimes, and many other things.  In the end, whether the regulation is from the government or a housing association, the goal is the same – to create a place where people want to live.

"In the end, whether the regulation is from the government or a housing association, the goal is the same - to create a place where people want to live."

A common criticism of guidelines like Bloomington has adopted is that businesses will not want to locate in the communities because of the regulations.  The logic is fairly easy to follow.  A chain like Starbuck’s or Subway has invested resources and money into developing a formula that works.  Anything that causes a deviation from that formula may cause additional expenses and may interfere with the success of a new location.  The potential added cost, derivation from the norm, and loss of recognizable features might make some businesses look for opportunities elsewhere.

If having standards like these will chase away a business, then why have them?  It could be that the reason people come to an area is the visual appeal.  It could be that the history of the area is worth preserving.  It also could be that a community believes the greenest building is the one that is already built.  Regardless of the reason for regulations, if a business wants to sell to the people in a community, they will put up with the regulations.

Creating a community where people want to live -- and where businesses want to locate and grow -- is complicated.  It takes the right combination of people, resources, amenities, and responsive community leaders (not just governmental leaders). 

The next time your community is reviewing its regulations or proposing new ones, be part of the conversation and ask what the regulations will do and if that is what you want to happen in your community.


Andrew Downs is Director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at IPFW.

Opinions expressed in this column are those of the individual writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the staff, management or board of Northeast Indiana Public Radio. If you want to join the conversation, head over to our Facebook page and comment on the post featuring this column.