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The Importance of Definitions

September 1st, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

I can’t stress enough how important it is to have definitions in ordinances that are clear and understandable. Recently I tried to help out a friend who was letting a sibling live in a residence she owned while he got back on his feet financially. There was no rent being paid but the relative was picking up the cost of the utilities. The town where this residence was located had a rental inspection ordinance so my friend received a notice from the local jurisdiction demanding she get a rental inspection. The town exempted residences that an “immediate family member” lived in from the ordinance. However, it did not define what the term “immediate family member” meant. It took the position that only children and parents of the owner were entitled to an exemption. Yet, if you look at general definitions as to what constitutes an “immediate family member”, some include siblings and some do not. When a definition is vague in the law, the party who has written the definition does not get the benefit of the ambiguity. Court decisions on this issue rely on the definition contained in the law. If there is none, the court should choose the most liberal interpretation of the term. I pointed this out to the inspector but she knew that it was cheaper for my friend to pay the inspection fee than try to litigate the issue. All of this could have been avoided by drafting a proper definition so anyone could tell exactly who was responsible for following the ordinance. I’m a big supporter of rental ordinances but I want ordinances where I’m not going to have to litigate over the terminology.

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  1. September 22nd, 2009 at 12:53 | #1

    Linda, I recently came across your site when searching for a solid definition of “family”. I am an AICP Planner who, for the last 18 years, has drafted zoning codes, subdivision regulations and design guidelines for communities across the United States. Your blogs are right on! Any recommendations, as an attorney, on where I could find legally defensible definitions for zoning codes?

    • Linda Pieczynski
      September 22nd, 2009 at 19:50 | #2

      I tend to rely on definitions adopted by local jurisdictions with good local counsel. It saves everyone a lot of time and you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. I don’t usually get involved in the adoption of zoning codes. I get involved when a definition is vague and I have to defend it. After that, I recommend a better definition that makes it very clear what we’re trying to attain. Even when you think you have a good definition, the problems don’t become obvious until a unique situation arises.

  2. September 29th, 2009 at 11:28 | #3

    We are experiencing a definition problem in our Revised Code. The definion of graffiti says, “…without authorization of the owner.” We have a property owner (not the first) who has graffiti’d his own house and we have no recourse because of this definition! I am also concerned when our planning code definitions and our revised code defintions are different.

  3. Mark Gilligan
    May 5th, 2010 at 23:34 | #4

    I support the need to be clear in writing regulations but I have enough experience with building code development to know that you will never create a totaly unambigious code. In many cases adding more language to “clarify” the code only creates more confusion.

    I believe that the real problem is with the official who does not understand that when there is ambiguity in the regulation the Owner should be allowed a reasonable interpretation of his choice. I have seen this problem all too often with plan checkers and building officials who insist of enforcing their idea of what should be required as opposed to what the code says. The net result is very similar to extortion in that we pay to do it the building officials way becaue it is cheaper than appealing the call

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