Will SLO's odor law pass the smell test?

Joe Tarica
Joe Tarica

I understand the desire to regulate offensive odors, and if you’ve ever been trapped in a small room with a couple of German tourists, you would too.

I once shared a lighthouse tour in Crescent City with a pair of aromatic Bavarians who apparently hadn’t enjoyed the benefits of soap since the Helmut Kohl administration. Today, that’s where my definition of stink starts: eau de unwashed European filling the space of the station’s cramped lamp room.

So I get where the city of San Luis Obispo is coming from with its new ordinance, even if it won’t exactly be dispatching staff around town to sniff pits and hand out mandatory Right Guard.

The target of these rules are unwanted odors wafting across property lines, but it’s no difficult leap to see how something as benign as a backyard barbecue could quickly be subject to enforcement.

Who’s to say an over-eager vegetarian won’t use the ordinance to try to put the kibosh on your kebabs?

I trust Farmers Market and the grill at McLintocks will be put in a special exclusionary zone, yes? Perhaps that should be written into the city charter.

The inspiration for this new municipal regulation came from a complaint about a residential marijuana patch in 2013, and if a yard full of live pot plants smells as much as a cloud of chronic, I would have raised a stink too.

To enforce this new ordinance, which was approved 3-2 and will return for a final vote next month, city staff will have to determine whether a particular odor is “offensive to individuals of normal sensitivity,” which most likely would require three or more complaints in a month to trigger enforcement.

Fines would start at $100 and increase to $200 and then $500. Presumably after the third offense, violators would be forced to install a giant spray can of Lysol on their lawn.

While I appreciate the intention, the problem here is the old slippery slope concept and the fact that one person’s rosebud may be another’s blooming onion.

What’s an eager garlic garden grower to do if the folks next door take offense to the fragrance?

Or maybe your neighbors are canine lovers who like to lather up their litter of pups. I can think of few worse smells than wet dog.

What else might get caught up in a dragnet of olfactory proportions?

Smoke from a burning calzone in the back yard pizza oven? An overly pungent compost heap? The perfumed breeze drifting from a patio luncheon of Mary Kay representatives?

The Tribune office is located between San Luis Sourdough and the city water treatment plant, so we know a thing or two about smells drifting across property lines. There was a time when you never could predict walking out the door whether you’d be delighted by the comforting scent of baking bread or slapped in the face by the stench of sewage.

On the smell-o-scale, yeast is good, waste is bad.

Just the other day, I was marveling at the scent of the spring blossoms around town and how the experience evokes distant memories far better than anything we see with our eyes. But those same blooms may send other people into sneezing fits and only cause misery. Clearly, judging smells is no simple matter.

In this case, I think the city’s heart is in the right place, but its code enforcers are going to have to be judicious in their response to complaints so that they don’t stick their nose where it doesn’t belong.