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Bureaucratic rationality #6: Brings All the Boys to the Yard edition

Here's a pretty old post from the blog archives of Geekery Today; it was written about 17 years ago, in 2007, on the World Wide Web.

(Via The Agitator 2007-11-04.)

Every spring and every fall for the past two decades, Laura Soelberg has had a yard sale. She is 72 years old and she makes a little bit of money for herself selling her old things in the yard of her late mother’s house. Her friends and neighbors look forward to the event and familiar faces greet her every year. She does no advertising, collects no taxes, and has no employees. And now she faces up to 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Laura Soelberg’s fall garage sale began much as it had for 19 years: Friends parked in the church lot next to her mother’s Minnetonka house, greeted her with hugs and gifts, and began browsing.

But within half an hour, the authorities arrived to shut her down.

A police officer and two city workers ordered a halt to the Oct. 24 event, telling everyone to get out, shoppers said.

It was almost like they were breaking up an underage party, said Laurel Elhart, a Minnetonka resident who had attended the sales for at least a dozen years.

Now Soelberg, 72, could face criminal charges — and if convicted, up to 90 days in jail, a $1,000 fine and a year of probation.

The city considers Soelberg’s yard sales a zoning violation, in part because, while the Deephaven resident owns the house, she does not live in it.

Soelberg looks upon her twice-a-year sales as a tradition she started with her mother in the 1980s and merely continued at her mother’s home after her mother’s death in the late ’90s.

I don’t understand. This is such a minor, little thing, she said. Everyone likes a garage sale.

Before each sale, which generally runs four days, Soelberg sends out reminder postcards to those who request them and gives the neighbors a heads up. Andy Martin, who lives next door, wrote a letter to the city in support of Soelberg, saying that his family is probably the most impacted of anyone by her sale. But her events, in contrast to others he’s seen in the city, are infrequent.

Before you sanction her, you would need to sanction many others, Martin wrote.

Yvonne Brown, who has known Soelberg for 20 years, arrived two hours after the authorities did on Oct. 24 and found the few people still there had stunned looks on their faces. It was like the Gestapo had just come and left, she said.

I couldn’t believe it. There are garage sales all over all the neighborhoods. Why this one?

But the city has raised another question: Are Soelberg’s events really garage sales?

In general, the city draws a legal distinction between a garage sale and a commercial venture, city planner Julie Wischnack said: The difference is whether someone is utilizing the sale for an income-generating venture. Is it truly trying to get rid of items around the house? Or is it a commercial operation?

… Her friends/customers, as she calls them, have voiced support for her in letters and a petition. Elhart said most of the shoppers are acquaintances — middle-aged and elderly women who have met at the sales over the years. And most were shocked by the police invasion. It’s odd that it’s been going on for so long and now, all of a sudden, it’s an issue, Elhart said.

— Jenna Ross, Minneapolis Star Tribune (2007-11-02): When is a yard sale not a yard sale?

So there you have it. City cops busted up an peaceful neighborhood yard sale and now they are threatening a 72 year old woman with jail and a $1,000 fine because she might be making a little extra to support herself through yard sales, without first going through the red tape and expense for a city business license. Also because there’s a zoning code, and the peace and quiet of the neighborhood needs to be protected whether her neighbors care or not. If the city government weren’t there to butt in and hassle Laura Soelberg, her happy neighbors, and her willing customers, who would? Without those zoning and business license regulations, just what would save quiet Minnesota neighborhoods from the rapacity of unfettered flea markets?

Bureaucratic rationality, n.: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy without permission.

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