March 1, 2021
By Heather Curry

If you’ve ever tried to apply for a permit for a project in your city, you may have found that it’s a bit like navigating a maze while blindfolded. From unclear rules to murky timelines, permitting processes can be challenging at best and onerous at worst. While in some places, permits may require little more than a form and a fee, in other areas the process may prove so difficult that law-abiding citizens don’t even bother trying to comply.

Right now, there is a Goldwater Institute reform under consideration in the Utah legislature that would bring clarity and consistency to permitting processes across the state. Introduced by Senator Kirk Cullimore, Senate Bill 204 seeks to institute three essential guidelines to ensure that state and local permitting processes achieve their goals while protecting the rights of all Utahns. Modeled after Goldwater’s Permit Freedom Act, SB 204 ensures Utahns not only know what to expect from the permitting process but when they can expect a decision.

First, the bill states that there must be clear and unambiguous language that defines the criteria by which a permit may be granted or denied. This is necessary so that applicants can know in advance if they are likely to meet the permit’s requirements or if they need to make adjustments or pursue additional help.

Second, applications must be approved or denied within a specified period of time. SB 204 institutes a timeline of 30 days for most permits, allowing up to 60 days when additional approvals are needed. Without this essential piece, permits are at risk of being delayed indefinitely and without reason by government bureaucrats.

Finally, if a permit application is denied, the applicant must be free to challenge that ruling in court. In many cases, appeals of denied permits are heard in administrative hearings, where normal standards of evidence and due process do not apply. SB 204 empowers citizens to be free to have their day in court, if they should so choose.

The U.S. Supreme Court has already stated that these guidelines are constitutionally mandatory whenever any government entity requires an American to obtain a permit. SB 204 does not eliminate any existing permit requirements; rather, it simply ensures that all Utahns have access to the same protections, no matter where they may reside in the state. Not only is that good news for anyone hoping to get a permit, it also brings government entities into compliance with the Supreme Court’s rulings.

Alongside Sen. Cullimore, the Libertas Institute, a free-market think tank in Utah, is helping to champion this issue in the state. Aerin Christensen, Libertas’ local government policy analyst, provided testimony in the Senate, highlighting stories of Utah residents who had, among other things, applied for the necessary permits to hold a 5k to raise funds for disabled children, only to never hear back from their city government. Speaking on the issue, Christensen commented that, “It makes sense that cities and state agencies would want to permit these activities: We are just suggesting that if they do, that process is clear and simplified.”

Goldwater’s Timothy Sandefur, Vice President for Litigation and author of the Permit Freedom Act, also provided testimony in support of the need for reform. In response to comment about the bill potentially limiting the ability of government to be flexible when issuing permits, Sandefur remarked, “Flexibility is legitimate within boundaries. Too much flexibility turns into an arbitrary process where politically influential people get their permits and those who aren’t politically influential don’t get their permits.”

Recently, the Goldwater Institute joined with the Libertas Institute to write in the Salt Lake Tribune that “Instituting these simple guidelines will have positive repercussions across Utah. Having processes that can be relied upon as consistent and fair will increase public trust in local and state officials and most importantly, free people up to go about their lives unencumbered by government red tape. When permitting processes are so onerous that applicants would rather sidestep the process than comply, it becomes more and more likely that permit requirements will be ignored. If Utahns can trust that they will encounter fair processes, they will be more likely to seek permits on projects large and small, further protecting the health and safety of the community.”

Senate Bill 204 has passed out of the Utah Senate and currently awaits action in the Utah House. If passed and signed into law, Utah will be the first state to fully embrace the Supreme Court’s ruling on the critical importance of its guidelines for permitting.

The Goldwater Institute applauds the Utah House of Representatives for acting to cut red tape and simplify the permitting process for all Utahns and encourages all state legislatures to consider this essential and timely reform.  

To learn how the Permit Freedom Act can work in your state, please contact Heather Curry (hcurry@goldwaterinstitute.org)

Heather Curry is the Director of Strategic Engagement at the Goldwater Institute.

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