SLO code crusade goes a little too far

bcuddy@thetribunenews.comApril 21, 2012 

The scene: A tree-lined street in the happiest and most self-satisfied city in America.

Two men in rumpled uniforms shamble down the street. One is peering hawklike at each house, each yard, each blade of grass, his eyes darting relentlessly.

The other is grumbling.

“Code enforcement! Jeezus, Starsky! We used to catch murderers!”

Starsky: “Shaddap, Hutch! We’re lucky to have any sort of job in this economy. Besides, this is noble work. We’re keeping this burg aesthetically pleasing.”

He pauses. “Hey, there’s one over there!”

Starsky yells at a man sitting on a battered sofa on a front porch.

“Hey, Grandpa! Out of that chair!”

The elderly man puts down his lemonade and crossword puzzle, looks at the officers with a mixture of confusion and fright, and stands up.

Resident: “What’s the trouble, officers?”

Starsky: “The stuffing is coming out of that chair. Where’d you get that thing, anyway? It’s making the neighborhood look bad.”

Resident: “I got it at the Salvation Army. It’s comfy. What’s going on? I’m just sitting here minding my own business.”

Starsky: “A troublemaker, eh? Assume the position!”

OK, perhaps I exaggerate slightly. But the point remains valid. The city of San Luis Obispo has once again expanded the definition of “nanny state.”

It has hired a pair of code enforcement officers — er, excuse, me a couple of “neighborhood services specialists” — to patrol the smug streets of this small city, looking to make sure that nobody exhibits any individualistic behavior that assaults the sensibilities of either the neighbors or the larger community.

I can see this up to a point. I don’t want Tom next door to me storing nuclear waste in his yard. And I’d be a tad unnerved if Joe across the street suddenly began planting rusty old Chevy Impalas or 1968 Dodge Dart carcasses in his front yard.

But recliners on the porch, trash barrels in the driveway, overgrown lawns, a sandwich board on the sidewalk in front of a deli? C’mon, will ya? When did all that become the government’s business?

What we have here is a culture clash. Every community needs common standards, including standards about how the town looks.

But individuals have rights as well, especially in their homes.

The question becomes, where do you draw the line between community standards and individual rights. San Luis Obispo, as a community, consistently draws them too far in the direction of the so-called common interest.

Keep your trash cans out of view, don’t feed the ducks, don’t smoke, ditch the sandwich board, and now, don’t put your comfy old chair in public view.

There is something smarmy about the way the city does this, something smug and self-satisfied. It’s almost prissy.

The group pushing the council to enact this kind of measure is an outfit called Residents for Quality Neighborhoods. RQN believes it is making San Luis Obispo more beautiful by regulating everyone’s behavior.

As far as I’m concerned, this outfit would more accurately be called San Luis Obispo Busybodies (SLOBs). And I’m not alone. A lot of people believe in the right to be left alone.

I have tried to get into the minds of folks who want to dictate individual behavior in the interests of the larger community. It doesn’t work for me.

Perhaps, at the end of the day, this is simply about the life experience of people on various sides of the issue of community aesthetics. I see life as sprawling, often unmanageable, surprising — a bit messy, if you will.

I also am afflicted, as are many Americans, with that libertarian, don’t-tread-on-me virus.

Others, clearly, see it differently from this live-and-let-live perspective. And they are running the show for now.

I would love to see the city dial it back on its code enforcement, and click it into gear only when something truly egregious is taking place.

I don’t expect that to happen.

Reach Bob Cuddy at bcuddy@thetribunenews.com.

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