California features a tremendous variety of natural features, climate zones, and human conditions. It is possible to go directly from the most intensely artificial urban environment to extremely hazardous wilderness in a surprisingly short time, as Californians frequently discover the hard way.
In addition to the tragic spectacles of the vegetarian who met the hungry mountain lion while joggng in the state park, or the suburbanite who neglected to prepare properly for high altitude temperatures and snow when traveling in the high mountains, or the optimist who thought he could drive fast and inattentively around Devil’s Slide, California offers as well distressing scenes in which ordinary Americans encounter to their great misfortune hypertrophied large urban regulatory machines sprawling into their lives.
One day, while I was still living on the SF peninsula in San Carlos, I went outside to get something from my car, and the pretty Oriental young lady who lived in the house across the street (whose name I did not even know, we had only been on waving-hello terms) ran crying into my arms.
She and her husband, a silver-haired, distinguÃ©e executive-type who drove an S-class Mercedes, had purchased the typical run-down 1960s-era California spec house across the street from our rental for something north of a cool million. They then proceeded to gut and completely rebuild the place. Construction activity had been going for about two years, and seemed finally to be nearing completion. I thought these neighbors seemed likely to be about to take up residence just about the same time I was scheduled to depart.
My neighbor began sobbing out her story. A building inspector from the city of San Carlos had just left. He had disapproved of the nails used to attach the wire-mesh to the outside of the house which had already been covered with stucco cement and painted. Because the city didn’t like the contractor’s choice of nail, my neighbors were going to have to give up plans to move in. They would be obliged to tear off the entire new exterior surface of their house, and re-attach new wire mesh and stucco, and paint the whole thing all over again. It would take months to do the demolition and exterior covering again, and it would cost a lot of money.
Beyond the many tens of thousands of dollars all that extra construction was going to cost, they’d have to do an additional move (their lease was up) and pay thousands of unnecessary dollars a month for another rental house. My neighbors had been hit with six figures in extra expenses by the local building code enforcement system over a nail.
No wonder the poor girl was sobbing. She probably felt a lot like Richard III.
I don’t doubt that there is some possibility that the use of a less-than-optimal nail to attach that wire mesh could result in problems. The mesh might gradually loosen, and come away from the wall of the house in places over time. Movement might occur, and the homeowner might find that portions of his stucco surface developed cracks. The poor homeowner might have to do some repairs one day. But, if every one of those nails fell right out, and the entire stucco coating on all four sides of the house fell right down onto the oleander bushes, it would be no skin off the nose of the city of San Carlos. San Carlos would not be paying for the repairs.
Building codes are represented to be necessary to protect the public. In urban California, at least, there is a reasonable argument for earthquake protection to be a factor taken into account in building standards. But codes obviously go characteristically far beyond addressing potential hazards to the general community. Building codes function to prevent competition from outside licensed guild-member businesses. Building codes protect the interests of unions. Building codes also operate as a secondary system of zoning, to protect the interests and impose the preferences of existing property owners. Building codes, finally, are also one more revenue source and a means of creating power.
In a lot of places, New York City would be a classic example, building codes describe an absolutely unattainable dream of perfection which never does and never can exist in the real world. Consequently, all buildings and all building owners are always guilty and in violation of lots of things. Officialdom can crack down and enforce the entire code any time it chooses. Make some kind of waves for officialdom, and watch the inspectors arrive, whip out their notepads and start writing.
All this is in reference to a horrifying LA Times story, describing how the long arm of big city city building regulation has, in recent years, begun reaching out to crush and destroy little people living far away in remote high desert locations which, unfortunately for them, nonetheless fall under the jurisdiction of the County of Los Angeles. Be sure to take your high blood pressure medication before reading the article or watching the video.