Here are a few pretty good signs that a law is bad: when simply enforcing it as it is written is deemed an injustice; when a citizen requesting the law be enforced is deemed “vexatious”; and when the process of defending yourself against prosecution for breaking the law is considered “unreasonable.” City council has such a law—or set of laws—on its hands right now, and we can only hope they take the opportunity to get rid of them.
I’m talking about the Municipal Licensing and Standards (MLS) department’s bylaws regarding property standards as they apply to regular homeowners (not landlords or business properties open to the public, which are a bit of a different matter). Some of these property standards regulate public safety, which seems entirely reasonable. But there are also a whole bunch of others that essentially enforce aesthetics: If you have a sign on your property, it must be legible and the paint shall not be peeling; if you have a backyard fence, it shall be no higher than six-foot-six (and must not be made of certain materials). Your house painting must conform, too: If there’s graffiti on your property, you must pay to have it removed, even if you put it there yourself. Your grass must be trimmed and your hedge pruned, and you mustn’t allow weeds to grow.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise in a city that has long dictated the menu items that food-cart vendors are allowed to sell on the street and insists on supplying the only garbage bins that residents may use. But it’s still silly: a set of busybody laws that accomplish little except for vindicating persnickety neighbours and keeping an army of “officers” employed to harass and threaten residents who are just trying to mind their own business. (Bonus: In 2011, city ombudsman Fiona Crean agreed that certain enforcement officers were being “belligerent” and “dismissive” in an investigation of how one woman subject to their attention was treated.)
Of course, you can get exceptions—by paying fees and filling out forms and pleading that your tangle of tall grass is a carefully sculpted butterfly habitat instead of a lazy eyesore; that the mural you commissioned is a work of art rather than a gang tag; that your seven-foot back fence has passed without notice for a decade and does no harm. But if you fail to apply for the proper permits, the city will come and, on 72 hours notice, do the work it wants done and bill you for it on your taxes.
And if the beauty police give you an order—Trim that hedge! Clear that litter! Rebuild that fence a foot shorter!—the process of merely appealing their decision costs $200. Even if you are successful, even if you have done nothing wrong, in other words, you pay a fine.
All of this comes to our attention because one anonymous Scarborough resident who objected to his or her own treatment at the hands of MLS pointed out that more than 60 neighbours were also in violation. The situation led the local councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker to blame the whistleblower—a motion he brought to city council last week calls the complainant “vexatious” and laments the fate of the poor souls who have to pay $200 appeal fees or bring their properties into compliance as a result of the complaints. He suggests giving the officers more leeway to disregard some complaints.
Council unanimously endorsed his request to have the city’s staff report on how to deal with such unreasonable situations, and I fully expect it will outline a possible process for deciding which type of complaint is motivated by spite (the bad kind) rather than motivated by an entitled desire to pass aesthetic judgement and punish the lazy neighbours (presumably the good kind).
I hope that the report recommends a better solution—though I’m not holding my breath—by pointing out that neighbours have no business tending each others’ gardens in the first place, and neither does the city. If we repealed the property standards regulations in question and let every taxpayer apply his or her own standards to his or her own property, we could then reassign the busybody beauty police to a job that actually makes the city a better place to live.