Finding the right bylaw isn’t always easy

Mel Rothenburger is the TNRD Director for Electoral Area P, including Whitecroft and Heffley Creek. He was the mayor of Kamloops from 1999-2005 and a former newspaper editor.

Many years ago, a very wise and respected civic politician was fond of saying, “Governments can’t regulate people’s behaviour.”

But while he was wise and respected, he was wrong. Government’s regulate people’s behaviour every day of the week.

I was reminded of this recently when a resident remarked that he didn’t like the regional district passing bylaws. He was referring to the Thompson Nicola Regional District’s (TNRD) review of limits on hobby farm animals and buildings.

If the politician who said governments can’t regulate people’s behaviour had said, “Governments regulate behaviour at their own peril,” he’d have been closer to the mark.
Laws and bylaws (the latter being the civic-government version of laws) are tools for modifying behavior to maintain peace and order. People don’t always like the rules imposed on them and, in a democracy, if enough people object to a rule it can be changed.

In my experience, the regional district takes a minimalist approach to creating bylaws because, by and large, rural residents aren’t overly fond of government involvement in their lives. Still, there are times when limits have to be set.

The trick to laws and bylaws is that they need to be based on a proven public need rather than on the bias of lawmakers, and that they are enforceable. Few will quarrel about laws against speeding in school zones or fighting in the streets, for example, but there are many examples of regulations that are overly restrictive or plain stupid.

In Alberta, apparently, you’re not supposed to paint a wooden ladder because it might hide a defect. In Montreal, don’t put a For Sale sign in the window of a moving vehicle. There used to be a bylaw in Toronto making it illegal to drag a dead horse down Yonge Street
on Sundays.

There were probably situations that prompted lawmakers to think it necessary to ban such acts. Somebody may well have dragged a dead horse down Yonge Street one Sunday — stranger things have happened in Toronto. But was a bylaw really necessary?
One of my favorites is a bylaw somewhere in the U.S. that banned the singing of any Bob Dylan song in a public place. I have a certain sympathy for that one but I don’t think it should be a bylaw.

Which brings us back to hobby farm regulations. It remains to be seen what they’ll look like but the issue came up in the first place because of public concerns about the lack of rules. The end game is to enhance people’s enjoyment of their small acreages, not detract from it.

The TNRD doesn’t always get it right when it comes to public consultation but this is one case in which the public has had a lot of opportunity to be heard, and people have taken up the offer. Some think more rules are good, some say they’re not necessary.
Whether it’s noisy dogs, buildings that are too big, fences that are too tall, too many cows and chickens, or the music of Bob Dylan, everybody has a different opinion on the right approach.

The challenge is to find the right bylaw for the job.