"Make getting welfare as hard as getting a building permit" -- bumper sticker seen on a car in downtown Bloomington.

A ridiculous notion, of course. A building permit is obtained in an hour or so with no more than a visit to downtown Bloomington and the county's building department. Welfare, of which the overwhelming portion is dispensed to children, is immeasurably less available.

But the impression left by the bumper sticker is a common and widely held, if wildly inaccurate, one. The impression that, even here in Indiana, a faceless cabal of bureaucrats, liberals and fellow-travelers sit astride a giant machine of development impermission, dictating how and when the built environment can happen, but mostly dictating that it can't.


Git off mah proper-tahy!

Indiana is a strict property-rights state, meaning that constitutionally and through the attitudes of its elected representatives, the presumption for what a landowner can do with his or her property lies with the landowner, first, and the community in which that land is sited, second.

Well, unless the state wants to turn the property over to well-heeled and well-greased palms for the purpose of building yet another highway, but I digress.

What few land-use restrictions that Indiana does have come from two primary areas: building codes and zoning restrictions. Even so, no county in Indiana is required to have either and many, such as our neighbor Greene County, don't.

Building codes are just that, codes that dictate the methods and materials by which buildings can be constructed. They don't have anything to do with land use specifically. Their function is to ensure that any building built conforms to a minimum criteria of safety, called "habitability" in the industry jargon.

Monroe County got building codes somewhere around the middle of the 20th century. Accompanied by the predictable and shrill protests of those who claimed such codes were, like fluoridation, just more proof that our nation was a gnat's ass away from Communism, the codes prescribed horrors such as minimum fire safety provisions for buildings and, to everyone's chagrin, that it just wasn't sanitary to not provide for indoor plumbing in an apartment building.

Zoning, again an option for any county, came Monroe's way circa Nixon's second term in office. Zoning, for those not familiar, is the practice of mapping out "zones" of permissible uses within an area. Here can be pig farming, there can be single and multi-family housing, over there big box stores.

Here there be shoppes

Zoning is a cudgel, and a ragged one at that. Allowed uses tend to be broad and, even where they're not broad enough, a number of devices exist to nullify even the most restrictive uses.

Essentially a suburban artifice, zoning came about because various real-estate interests understood that mapping out permissible uses meant mapping where government infrastructure investments would, and would not, be made. If one area was zoned residential and another retail, then surely the only logical thing to do was for the government to build a road connecting the two.

All the speculator had to do was secure control of both areas, get the zoning done, and sit back while the road, and the profits, rolled in.

In short, it was a way to codify who would win. And who would lose.

Building codes. Zoning. Those are the tools, the only restrictions, by which our elected representatives can guide the shaping of our communities. And they're weak tools.

But more than weak, co-opted for the furtherance of narrow land interests and against the interests of the community as a whole. Instead of guiding the shaping of our communities, they're used instead to turbocharge the desecration of communities.

Commissioners, defanged

That's structural. At both the city and the county level exist things called "Planning Commissions." To the uninitiated, those sound like bodies that engage in community planning, that have powers related to community development.

Which is anything but what they do. By Indiana statutory law, planning commissions exist to:

* Create non-binding vision statements, like "Master Plans" and "Growth Policies Plans." These documents, though florid and full of milky promise, have no legal status and any prescription contained therein have all the force of a wet noodle pressing against Everest.

* Make recommendations regarding zoning changes ("up-zones") requested by developers. Those recommendations also have no force of law and are passed, often reluctantly, to the actual elected bodies with the power to decide them (city councils, county commissioners, etc.) who, as a matter of course, ignore those recommendations if they run counter to the wishes of the developer.

* Review the subdivision of plots of land into smaller plots (in order to create a sum more lucrative than the previous whole), passing only judgment on whether or not that subdivision is in accordance with the highly technical and straight-jacket-procedural subdivision control ordinance, a function even the most primitive computer could perform cheaper, faster, and more accurately.

That's it, and contrary to the public perception as espoused by our opening bumper sticker campaign. Toothless, powerless, and functionless.

That's the degree of civic control over the built environment, here in Indiana. That's the degree of civilization.

Gregory Travis can be reached at .