Five Ways Municipal Law Affects Your Life

Barry Malone is a practicing lawyer and writer in metro Detroit.

Being a municipal law attorney is very similar to being a general practitioner. You have to be ready for anything to walk through the door. There are any number of legal issues that can come before—or be caused by—a municipality. This is because municipal governments are made up of employees, volunteers, and elected officials, meaning they have significant powers and a lot of players. Here are five ways that municipal law impacts your life.

So You Want to Build a Slaughterhouse?

Let’s talk about zoning laws. The power to tell people where they can put what type home or business is generally granted by the state to local governments. Zoning laws give a local government authority to set out a scheme or plan for development within their communities. Some land uses are generally permissible everywhere while others are tightly regulated. If you want to build a single-family residence, most likely, the sky’s the limit for where you can do that. If you want to build a church, then you’re likely going to have a variety of opportunities of where you can put it as a right and even more where it can go permissibly. This means that there are places a church may go, but some additional criteria must be met. If you want to open a gentlemen’s club, then you’ll likely find that your options to do so are extremely limited. Communities cannot outright ban adult-oriented businesses, but they have the power to make it really hard to open one by designating it as an allowable use in only very specific zoning districts.

I Have to Pay How Much?

Local governments derive their revenues from property taxes. These taxes, paid by homeowners and businesses in a community, provide the revenue to pay for police officers, building inspectors, and, yes, tax collectors. Following the tanking of real estate markets across the country in the late 2000s, many local governments found themselves hurting for cash flow as taxable property values plummeted. Additionally, where applicable, many communities found themselves buried by home and business owners appealing their property taxes, seeking lower payments. This further acerbated the problem of lessened revenue by decreasing cash flow through successful appeals and the costs of defending appeals with in-house or private attorneys.

Do You Know How Fast You Were Going?

The most obvious way that municipal law impacts your life is through the local police force. Lawyers are busy people and often have multiple demands on their limited time. From time to time, a lawyer tries to make up for lost time by stepping on the gas just a bit heavy. If this is you, you might find yourself face-to-face with your local constable for a—possibly expensive—chat about how fast you were going. For attorneys, the police force touches on many additional issues besides civil speeding tickets, including criminal law, employment law, and excessive force cases.

You Can’t Use That Kind of Wood

An important function of local government is to serve as a watchdog for consumer safety and to ward against blight. A building inspector typically performs these functions. A building inspector has the power to issue citations for building code violations and to even halt work entirely where a construction company is violating the code. Most states’ building codes are very large books with hundreds, if not thousands, of regulations on residential and commercial building. Attorneys are often sought for help with navigating the building code—or enforcing it.

Let the Sun Shine In

Local governments are subject to state open meetings acts and freedom of information acts (FOIA). These laws were generally enacted to promote transparency in government and are often called sunshine laws. These are the laws that allow for the average citizen to comb through the mayor’s emails or speak during the open comments at city council meetings. For attorneys, FOIA can serve as an excellent tool before litigation to retrieve documents and correspondence from the local government. For municipal attorneys, both laws give important powers to the public and are worth knowing well.

Municipal law is a broad and interesting area of law that keeps its practitioners on their toes. The local government has significant powers to regulate a client’s home or business. It is wise to consider the municipal ordinances when undertaking a project that may be under local regulation.

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