So what if they said it’s illegal?

Sign says, "$20 fine for climbing or defacing water tower, by order of city council"
Sometimes, you just have to do it anyway and pay the fine.


“Every one of your Innovative Rural Business Models is illegal!”

That was what the code enforcement guy said to me, and to the whole audience, when he spoke after I did. I just nodded and agreed. Yes, sure they are in some towns or in some circumstances. But so what?

Don’t let an outdated law or rule stop a great idea for your community. Whether it’s a business or a project, you have options to move forward.

The code enforcement guy went on to talk for an hour about how outdated rules and codes hold small towns back, and how they can and should adopt new ones. Clearly, he understands that illegal today doesn’t mean illegal forever and doesn’t mean you can’t ever do it.

We adopt rules so we can have a great community. When they no longer serve that, they can and should be changed. If a past council could adopt a rule, the current council can change it.

Practical answers

What can you do if you’ve been told your idea for your town is illegal? Here are 5 practical steps you can use right away:

1. Ignore the rules. Do it anyway.

This is the “so what?” approach. So what can they do to you? Probably not much. We all know examples of other people doing other things that are against the rules in our towns. They manage to do it, so surely we are at least as wily.

“A project that starts unsanctioned can become sanctioned and approved quickly,” Mike Lydon said in the book Tactical Urbanism.

2. Read carefully to find a legal alternative.

This is my favorite way to deal with charges of “illegal!” Just out-think them to find a “legal enough” solution.

Lots of towns have old “no selling on the streets” rules. Fine. We’ll sell on the sidewalk, in a parking lot, from an empty lot or in an empty building.

Or maybe we won’t “sell” at all. Maybe we’ll give things away for free, and maybe get a sponsor to donate and cover the cost. Maybe we’ll turn it into a public art performance, not a business. There’s no rule against public art!

3. Do it anyway and pay the fine.

Big secret: lots of small town fine schedules were set up decades ago and are actually quite small. If that’s the case, why not go ahead and pay it? Call it a permit fee after the fact.

If the fine is too high to pay yourself, try taking up a collection from other like-minded folks. If lots of people think the idea is good enough to pay part of the fine, then that’s good evidence to the council that the old rule no longer serves the community.

In fact, maybe you can’t find support to make your idea completely legal, but you can get support to change the fine to a pittance. Sort of a quiet agreement to allow cool projects like yours to happen. Or an interim step by the council to show they are considering allowing it.

4. Suspend the rules for now. 

Declare a bureaucracy free zone for 3 months, and just see what happens, Fred Kent of the Project for Public Spaces suggested. What can happen that officials can’t undo in another 3 months?

5. Change the rules for good.

It takes time, of course, and you’ll need a lot of support. But if you use one of the other tactics to build a record of success, then you’re in a stronger position to ask for change.