Stephanie WhittExecutive Vice President
Governments require permits or licenses for a wide variety of undertakings—everything from building a home to starting a business to buying a gun. Being free means not having to ask for permission, yet today America is slowly turning from a free society into a “permission first” society where our freedoms are regarded as privileges the government grants us.
While these rules can sometimes be a good way to protect public safety, they can also cause unnecessary delays, restrict opportunity, and empower government officials to exploit people who need permits by demanding payoffs in exchange. That’s why the U.S. Supreme Court has said that when the government requires a person to get a permit to do something he or she has a constitutional right to do, the government must also ensure that three basic procedural safeguards are followed: (1) Clear criteria for whether the permit will be granted or denied—no vague standards like “good cause”; (2) An explicit deadline for when the government will decide whether to grant or deny the permit; and (3) A meaningful day in court for those who think the government wrongly denied the permit.
Unfortunately, too many permit requirements lack these protections. The criteria for obtaining a permit are phrased in ambiguous language, and the applicant is given no specific timeframe for when he or she will get an answer. And because without a formal determination there can be no appeal, many cities have started to “deny by delay,” holding up applicants in endless bureaucratic red tape, effectively killing projects or business startups. Permits should not exist as tools to achieve policy ends nor serve to protect governments. Rather, permits exist to ensure the safety of other residents before people undertake a constitutionally protected act. A great example is a driver’s license. Because car accidents are common and often deadly, it makes sense to take preventative measures beforehand. Additionally, the rules to obtain a driver’s license are clear and objective and upon passing an exam, a license is received that day with no show of favoritism.
The Permit Freedom Act gives real meaning to these protections laid out by the Supreme Court. It requires all permits to be clear and unambiguous, and requires local governments to approve or deny permits in a set timetable. Local governments can still deny permits, but they must do so in a timely fashion.
What the Bill Does
The Permit Freedom Act requires all permit requirements to be in clear and unambiguous language. Additionally, local governments have 60 days to either approve or deny the permit after receiving all necessary information from the applicant. If the local agency is dependent on a prior approval of a state or federal agency, the timetable starts when after all prior approvals have been completed. If a local government fails to meet this deadline, applicants can go to court to achieve a writ of mandamus, which simply mandates the local government issue the necessary permit.
Who This Impacts
In September of 2019, Cathy, her husband David, and their three children packed up their life and moved to Murfreesboro from Chicago. As small business owners, they were looking to escape the high taxes and the anti-business climate in Illinois. They chose Murfreesboro to be close to her husband’s family and build their dream home on a large piece of property. After clearing 1.5 acres of land to build their house, they pursued a permit, only to find out that, while the county did not deem their home to be in a FEMA flood plain, the county determined that it was in a local water easement and gave them egregious conditions for building… on their own property. Cathy and her husband even signed a form provided to them by the county saying that they would not sue the government if their house did flood, only to find out—according to the county—that they were not candidates for this type of exemption. The process started all over, costing them over ten thousand dollars and months in delay. Local governments should have clear and defined criteria for granting or rejecting land use permits and a stringent deadline so families like Cathy’s can make full use of the property that they own.