Occupying a place of honor, sort of, on my interesting-clippings bulletin board is a 2001 quote from one Martha Kent, then Director of the Safety Standards Program for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. In it she says that issuing a regulation is: "...a thrill, a high. I love it. I absolutely love it. I was born to regulate. I don't know why, but that's very true. So long as I'm regulating, I'm happy". You can read the full account for yourself in the March 11, 2001 issue of Reason Magazine.
Not occupying a similar place of honor is a recent news report discussing Forest Service plans to improve the Green MountainNational Forest in the Braintree area. On the budget: restoring long-abandoned 19th-century farmstead sites and apple orchards, which, like almost all other non-modern Vermont land development now universally deemed admirable and worthy of officially-sponsored protection, was originally executed entirely by individual design initiative and construction effort, without a single Act 250, local zoning, or design review permit required. The USDA could have earned the Harris Award simply by recognizing the merits of now-forbidden unregulated private initiative.
Now that we live in an age of happy regulators in which the only admired unregulated activity in Vermont is that of long-dead white guys who moved into unspoiled wilderness to kill trees to build heavy-timber houses and barns, and cleared forestland and drained wetlands to plant non-native crops like Red Clover and graze methane-emitting European-origin livestock like Red Devons. No surprise, then, that in the growing debate over the benefits of residential fire-suppression sprinkler systems, almost all the official chatter concerns the means and intensity of regulation. I've not read a single article in the Code publications or construction trade magazines directly advocating a non-regulatory incentive-based approach.
I did find one article, in the June 1991 issue of Sprinkler News, setting forth the numbers to show that, using the collegiate fraternity house example, the payback on retro-fit sprinkler installation was then 7.7 years. It didn't say the obvious: that retro-fit is far more expensive than installation-during-new-construction, and that therefore systems installed in new buildings would, ideally, enjoy an even faster payback. Faster payback, of course, equates to increased owner-incentive, no mandatory regulation needed. Not a scenario to make the battalions of Martha Kents in governance-careers happy.
Payback is based on reduced fire insurance premiums, and therein lies the rub, because many insurers won't reduce premiums unless the sprinkler installation meets code requirements, including water-reserve requirements which are super-expensive to meet in rural areas off the municipal water system. Encouraging sprinkler installation in rural development would require easing the code requirements, something the anti-rural-development "smart-growth" advocates would vociferously oppose because, as things now stand, the regulations work to pressure wannabe home-owners to locate in already urbanized areas with municipal water, not private wells. You can, of course, install a few sprinklers drawing from the water system in your own house-in-the-country but it won't meet code and therefore it won't get you an insurance deduction. No deduction, no payback. No payback, no incentive.
I suppose that, if you could back the Martha Kents of happy regulation into a quiet corner and promise them that their comments would be un-recorded, they'd admit that having a few sprinklers in a rural house beats not having them, for safety purposes. But you'd be highly unlikely to succeed at getting them to reduce or change their beloved regulations, so that their subjects-of-governance might enjoy a financial incentive rather than a government mandate for doing so.
Former Vermonter Martin Harris lives in Tennessee.