Flexibility that predominates in small cities often benefits residents

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Reflections from my Notebook

As I was watching kids slide down South Broadway Avenue in Spring Valley Saturday afternoon, a guy next to me commented, “You’d never see that in Rochester.”

That’s because the children were sliding down the middle of the street, which was packed full of snow for the annual Christmas on Historic Broadway celebration. Cities generally take snow off the streets, but the Spring Valley City Council made an exception this one day to bring snow back on the street so youth could have some outdoor fun on the steepest, longest hill in Spring Valley. The homeowners along the street also gave their OK.

Rochester city officials would likely never bend the rules to create a slippery street for sledding. The scale of the city bureaucracy, and just sheer numbers of streets, people and staff, would make that highly unlikely.

Sledding isn’t the only spontaneous fun activity that is easier to do in small towns.

When the Almanzo 100 bicycle race started growing, officials in Rochester discovered the race was starting on city streets, which then meant fees and regulations, prompting founder Chris Skogen to relocate it from Rochester to Fillmore County.

Foot races are also much easier to set up in the small towns in our area. In Rochester, parade permits with the associated fees are required to be submitted for approval of any event, including one for runners. Race directors must also hire law enforcement to help at all controlled intersections, which adds to the cost of holding a race in Rochester.

In small towns here, race organizers often map out a route, check with city officials to make sure it is OK and then ask law enforcement to help out, which they always do if they aren’t on a call at the time.

That low-key approach reaches into other matters of life in small towns.

For example, some contractors in specialized areas, such as concrete driveways, feel shut out of the Rochester market because the costs for permitting are so great that it isn’t feasible to do occasional work there. To pay for those upfront costs would require a commitment to work solely in Rochester.

In a way, that makes sense. Rochester is big enough that the city needs to protect its citizens from unscrupulous contractors since people often don’t know anything about the firms they hire for jobs.

In small towns, people see the contractors in the community, so they know who they are. And, people talk to each other so it doesn’t take long for a poor reputation to get around. 

School administrators at small schools also deal with problems more on an individual basis. I remember one former superintendent who said the zero tolerance regulations popular in school districts across the nation weren’t necessarily good for small schools. He likened it to using a 20-row combine on the back 40.

This administrator took time to understand the full situation, the life of the student and other factors. Officials in small districts also know that students often talk, even to adults, about what is going on, making it easier to get at the truth of a matter.

That doesn’t mean life in small towns is a free-for-all without any regulations. It’s just that they are a bit more flexible, something that is possible due to a smaller scale and people who tend to know more about each other and about what is happening in the community.

However, small communities have found the need to adapt to protect their citizens as life becomes more complicated with more choices.

Some small cities have had to go to rental ordinances, which are much less restrictive than those in bigger cities, but at least assure renters of safe living conditions. Others have also begun allowing certain farm animals, but on a very restrictive basis to maintain aesthetics and safety for neighbors.

People are also likely to self-police, knowing that a benefit to the community may be taken away if people abuse the privilege. For example, a recent letter to the editor in the Bluff Country Reader took to task someone who misused the composting/brush landfill in Spring Valley.

Another problem is that low-key enforcement in small towns can go awry in some instances.

For example, if people are treated differently — if the rules are enforced for one person and not another — conflict often arises. That is why consistency is important.

Another source of conflict is when rules on the books aren’t enforced. That question came up at a city candidates’ forum last fall, although the specific law wasn’t cited. While people understand why exceptions are made in special circumstances for an event that benefits the entire community, they also expect certain standards to be met the rest of the year, particularly if rules are on the books.

The mostly hands-off approach of small towns isn’t perfect, and may become less hands-off as our communities change, but the flexibility is welcome. Just ask any kid who spent Saturday afternoon sliding down a city street on the edge of downtown Spring Valley.