Editorials ~ Sonoma Valley Sun


Violating the spirit of the law

Posted on March 8, 2018 by Sonoma Valley Sun

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


3 thoughts on “Violating the spirit of the law

  1. That the unnecessarily wealthy applicant has submitted modified plans in which massive outsized structures are put on stilts and perimeter walls in order to shoehorn the structural/developed square footage into a 5,000 graded ‘pad’ footprint would seem to be an acknowledgment that, indeed, pad size is limited to 5,000 sq feet per lot, not ‘per structure.’ Which would be in keeping with the guidelines’ use of the word ‘total’ in describing square feet of pad per lot.

  2. Extensive studies have shown that our memories of events are active interpretations of the past rather than picture-perfect records of it. Our recall of the past is affected by our present expectations and by our current knowledge and state of mind. Even in this editorial, partially authored by one of the signers of the letter, Mr. Barnett– there is inconsistency.

    In the letter submitted to the council, the 2003 council writes that the intent was to “limit R-H pad size to more than 5,000 sq feet per lot.” Yet this very editorial, says the intent was to limit “development size for building” to 5,000sf. So which is it?

    If it is to limit building sizes, why wasn’t that spelled out plainly in the guidelines? Why has that definition not been applied to over a half dozen homes built since that time. Why were those projects, most of them with more visual impact and larger in scale than these, not appealed?

    The code actually defines pad lot grading to include parking and yard areas. The opposition want to define pad lot as any grading done for structures, roads, yards, decks, etc. So how can you argue that the 5,000 ft limit has anything to do with building size?

    The only clear intent, is the intent of today’s opposition: stop the lawful right for these homes to be built. The only question is why the opposition? Is it a personal thing, a pet issue of a few people, a general dislike for wealthy people, or a general disregard for property rights? Or perhaps it’s just something to do.

    If the latter, may I suggest volunteering, exercise, or entrepreneurship?

    1. The five members of the City Council in 2003 all agree on the intent to limit the size of development on the hillsides to 5,000 sq. ft., and said so in a recent letter to the current council. That was the spirit of the law. Imprecision in the language of the law can be debated, but not the intent; that has been established without question. Homes approved on hillsides since adoption of the ordinance have been, by and large, projects that did not come before the Planning Commission; they were administratively approved. Accordingly, the opportunity for an appeal, let alone knowledge of the action itself, was scant to impossible. Why your obvious support for huge homes on the hillside? Why do you not identify yourself by name in your posted comment? Fear, friendship or a business relationship with the applicant? May I suggest coming out from behind the curtain?

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