Monday, August 4, 2014

We've had enough of silly laws

America prides itself on being a society based on the rule of law. We elect representatives at all levels of government in the hope that they will enact legislation that nurtures and protects individual rights to build a framework for an orderly society.

Somewhere along the way, that notion got a little off track. All too often, it seems like laws are passed to reward one segment of society and punish another. Like other things, laws tend to roll downhill.

Virginia is a Dillon Rule State, which means that localities like Goochland County have only those powers specifically granted to them by the Virginia General Assembly. The notion behind this, put forth by jurist John Forrest Dillon in the 1800’s, is that local government officials (in Dillon’s time this applied mostly to cities) tend to be incompetent and corrupt. State representatives, he contended were smarter and more honest and better able to govern.

This all means that Goochland’s elected officials must engage in a cumbersome game of “Mother May I” to get things done.
Each year, our county officials have a public lunch meeting with our delegation to the Virginia General Assembly to explain the Goochland’s position on a number of issues. This year’s session will be held on Tuesday, August 5 in the Community Room of the Goochland Campus of Reynolds Community College beginning at noon. The public is invited to attend.

In the past few years, our representatives: Delegates Lee Ware, 65th District; Peter Farrell, 56th District; and Senator Tom Garrett, 22nd District, have sponsored and worked to enact legislation that benefits the county. For this we are grateful.

The items up for discussion this year include: sludge; storm water runoff regulations; unfunded mandates; a bridge over Tuckahoe Creek connecting Ridgefield Parkway in Henrico with Route 288; and a law passed last year dealing with bicycles. (See the Board packet on the county website for the complete list.)

The bridge is an “evergreen” concern that may need a change of Henrico supervisors for resolution. Sludge, unfunded mandates, and storm water regulations illustrate how the state shrugs off awkward and expensive mattes to localities.

Beefed up bicycle regulations, however, seemed to have coasted into law amid the fervor over next year’s international cycling event in the area while legislators were concentrating on the budget and Medicaid expansion. This requires motorists to give cyclist three feet of clearance when passing.

No one wants to see cyclists hurt. Sharing the road is a wonderful concept, if you have enough road.

District 5 Ken Peterson, a cyclist himself, “did the math” on this law and found it wanting. For the past few months, he has asked representatives from VDOT—the state agency whose motto is Oops!—if and when we can expect bike lanes to be added to our roads for safety’s sake. In July, the response seemed to indicate that construction of bike lanes is an expensive proposition, especially for an agency chronically short of funds, and will commence on the fourteenth of never.

Peterson pointed out that most roads in Goochland are centered by double yellow lines that prohibit passing. As cars tend to travel at a higher rate of speed than bicycles, drivers have the option of crawling along behind the cyclists, or breaking the law and crossing the center line to pass. He said that the law makes no sense. An influx of cyclists to county roads, whose “shoulders” are often narrower than the width of a dollar bill, will only exacerbate the situation.

Perhaps those sponsoring the bill live in a place with wide roads and bike lanes believing all Virginia roads are the same.
It will be interesting to see how the legislators explain this law that was undoubtedly passed with many good intentions, but too little thought.

Our state laws have a reputation for being difficult, if not impossible, to decipher and follow. Earlier this year, during the Benedictine dispute, Goochland Circuit Court Judge Timothy K. Sanner expressed frustration at land use statutes that he characterized as “opaque” and suggested that both parties implore their state legislators to amend the applicable sections of the Code of Virginia for greater clarity. One of the attorneys involved argued a particular point by contending that the legislators meant something other than what the law said.

The Virginia General Assembly meets for only a few weeks each year. During that time, legislators wade through a deluge of bills on a wide array of topics. It is impossible for them to read and carefully consider the consequences of every potential piece of legislation, so we get silly laws that cannot be interpreted by the courts or enforced. There has to be a better way.

The line on the left is three feet wide. Not much room between its end and the double yellow line in the center of a typically narrow Goochland Road.

No comments: