Emmie Brown Blog

The Letter of the Law vs. the Intent of the Law

My husband, Dave, and I live in a home that was built in 1925.

It is crazy to think that at one point our home felt big to us. Because, for a while now, we have been busting at the seams. We need room for our cars and room for all of the stuff that comes with having kids – like bicycles, strollers, and ride-on toys. And, we need a quiet place to work since we often work from home. So, we started the journey of finding an architect and a contractor to build our garage.

Working with historic caused a major issue. Our house falls in a historic overlay, which means there is a committee that oversees the preservation of our neighborhood’s historic look. One of the rules that they have for any detached unit is that the footprint can only be a certain size in relation to the lot size. Another rule states that the dormer can only be so high.

These rules have a purpose.

The purpose is that they do not want the detached unit to be bigger than the main house. They want it to be clear which unit is the main residential dwelling to preserve the look of the neighborhood.

The challenge is that my husband and I need two offices in that space, one for each of us to have a quiet place to have our confidential and personal conversations with clients. We hired an architect to draw our plan, but the design we needed required an additional foot and a half of height to our dormer. Anything less would cost us 150 square feet of office space. The committee allowed us to go to a hearing to plead our case for the additional foot and a half of height. We thought that we had a good chance of being approved because our yard slopes downward. So even with the additional height, the garage would appear to be a few feet shorter than the main house.

To our dismay, and in spite of the fact that the city had allowed us to plead our case, the city quickly ruled that since the rule in place with historic stated that the dormers could only be a certain height, then they could only be a certain height! They just would not budge. That was so incredibly frustrating to me! Why did they have me go to court to appeal it if they were not even going to consider it?

They were following the letter of the law but had forgotten the intent of the law.

Sometimes organizations and people can be so rigid with following the rules that they have in place that they forget the reason they even put the rule in place to begin with. There is certainly a place for rules. As organizations scale, there is a need for protocol. There is a need for structure. If you did not have protocols and rules in place, then there would be no quality control. And, at the same time, if there is no consideration of flexibility with the rules, then the organization begins to value policy over people. That is a dangerous place to be.

The bottom line is that as you are building a successful organization, you should put policies and standards in place. At the same time, you should remember that while upholding the policy is important, so are the people. People trump policy.

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