No good deed or green initiative goes unpunished in metro Atlanta.
Just look around at examples of forward-thinking small businesses struggling to do the right thing during the worst economic crisis in a generation. DeKalb County — which brands itself as the "greenest county in America" — has recently caught bad press for hitting an organic farmer with $5,000 in fines for growing too many vegetables. In Atlanta, a nascent food-truck industry has been held back by Byzantine public health laws. And, earlier this year, the city's lone biodiesel pump was shut down for not meeting Atlanta's strict fire-safety regulations.
These disputes come with their fair share of he-said, she-said complications, but one thing rings true: Local governments, faced with new and innovative ways for businesses to operate, often end up issuing fines and stonewalling entrepreneurs when they should be cutting the red tape.
It's understandable why local bureaucrats and government inspectors might take such a route. City and county workers are hired to enforce existing ordinances; it's the elected officials and policymakers who must keep pace with new ideas and practices. If such progressive cities as Portland, Ore., and Seattle can do it, so can we.
Organic and urban farmers, street-food vendors and green-energy start-ups all need to comply with the law, but the powers-that-be could make their hectic lives easier with better communication and a lot less legal labyrinth. Government officials should confer with department heads on ways that current codes can be amended to lessen the hurdles for someone who wants to start such a business. And, if the political will isn't yet there to push new legislation, jurisdictions need to provide easy-to-understand guidelines to show new industries how to operate within existing codes.
More urban farming means greater access to healthy food and a no-brainer use of vacant land in impoverished neighborhoods. More clean-energy initiatives could reduce an area's carbon footprint, as well as improve air quality and reuse waste in a smarter way. Food carts could enhance street life downtown and create jobs. With all of this enterprise comes new tax revenue.
As CL went to press, Atlanta Councilman Kwanza Hall was preparing legislation to allow food trucks to do business under the Downtown Connector overpass. It's a decent first step toward opening the door to a burgeoning new industry.
Don't let these efforts become merely a fad. The metro area will make better use of its resources and find itself culturally enriched if elected officials find ways to encourage innovative businesses.