It’s said there are two elements of law, the letter of the law and its spirit. The letter of the law refers to the specific meaning of the words used and how to apply them. The spirit of the law refers to law’s original intent, its goals. Laws, after all, are a means to an end; they have a social purpose.
In disagreements over local land use matters, developers and neighbors must avail themselves of an appeals process in which commission decisions are appealed to the City Council. The council must then decide between the spirit and the letter of the law, and if the parties remain unsatisfied after a council decision, matters may end up in court, where a judge reconciles disagreements.
Words matter, and that’s why the writing of laws, rules and regulations must be done carefully. Terms must be defined, and ambiguities avoided. But words, however, are just the way we make distinctions and words are by nature interpretive, approximations of actions and intent. Words change in meaning over time as cultures and circumstances evolve.
Land use laws and development regulations, like all word constructions, are never perfect, which is why the spirit of the law is important. An understanding of the intent of those who drafted a law is essential to its application. Even Supreme Court justices argue over this very point; those who are “originalists” focus on the words and seek to apply the law the way the words intend. “Non-originalists” argue that the specifics words are less important than the intent of the law, and that laws must adapt as society changes.
Understanding the ways that laws can be applied, some land-use attorneys specialize in looking for ways in which the words of law are unclear or ambiguous. After finding such a circumstance, or loophole, they then propose actions for their clients that violate the spirit of the law and push the legal envelope into previously uncharted waters. The current controversy about the Schocken Hill development is one such circumstance.
Development Code design guidelines adopted in 2003 say a building “pad” on a hillside parcel should be no more than 5,000 square feet. The applicant and his attorneys have argued that the guidelines do not specifically prohibit multiple building “pads” on one parcel, do not specifically define “pad,” or prohibit building plans greatly exceeding 5,000 square feet; the previously seated Planning Commission accepted those arguments. The previous members of the City Council who adopted the guidelines all agree their intent was to limit the development size for building on a single hillside parcel to 5,000 square feet. Now the current City Council must decide.
Are guidelines suggestive, as Planning Director Goodison contends, or are they formative? We believe they are the latter, intended to “guide” the form of development in a particular direction, scale and character. Guidelines represent the aspiration for a neighborhood’s future, and to say they simply “suggest” is to abandon any pretense of planning at all. In this sense, the spirit of the guidelines are what’s most important, and the law notes that any proposed departure from guidelines must be justified by exceptional circumstances, not simply personal taste or preferences. In the present case, the letter of the law should be subordinate to its spirit.
— Sun Editorial Board