You likely have heard the controversy surrounding 9-year-old Spencer Collins’s Little Free Library. In case you haven’t, you can get the full story here, but the short version is that the City Council of Leawood, Kansas (where Spencer lives) ordered him to remove the Little Library he put in his front yard. They cited a city ordinance that stated: “No detached structure including garages, barns, sheds, greenhouses, above ground pools, or outbuildings, shall be permitted, unless expressly allowed.”
Just a few days ago, after hearing Spencer speak, the City Council amended this ordinance to allow people to put up Libraries in Leawood (see Spencer’s victory speech here). Woot! You can congratulate Spencer and his family on their Facebook page.
But, this story got us thinking that many of you who want to establish Little Libraries in your town may come face-to-face with these types of city ordinances and zoning laws. If you’re a prospective Library Steward but don’t know whose permission to seek, begin by checking out #11 on our FAQs page which discusses placing a Little Library on public property. If you’re looking for more, we get a little more in-depth on zoning laws and processes in the Where to Locate Your Library handout on the How-To Information page.
Even if you already have a Library up and running, that doesn’t mean that the city or your HOA won’t come knocking and ask you to modify, move or remove your Library. Alternatively, maybe you’re a city official looking for an example of how other towns have modified their zoning laws to allow people to safely and respectfully install Little Libraries in their yards.
Here is how the City of Derby, Kentucky handled the new Little Libraries showing up around town (courtesy of Jo Simon). From what we have seen so far, this is a pretty standard example of what your town likely has in place or will put in place to regulate Libraries. So, if you abide by these rules from the get-go, you decrease your chances of any trouble in the future:
Any individual or organization desiring to place a Little Free Library should be advised of the following: Little Free Libraries meeting the below listed conditions are not subject to permitting or licensing requirements of the City of Derby.
- Little Free Libraries are considered as an accessory use, and are permitted in any zoning district; provided that, all such libraries meet the following placement requirements:
- Shall not be located within or overhang the public street right-of-way or any public easement;
- Shall not obstruct vehicular, bicycle or pedestrian traffic, either physically, or by a person utilizing the Little Free Library;
- Shall not obstruct access aisles or paths utilized by persons in wheelchairs or for ADA accessibility;
- May be placed as a permitted obstruction in a required front yard (area between the front wall of a building and the public street right-of-way);
- Enclosures shall be sized and arranged such that no person or child is able to enter;
- Shall be anchored to the ground or otherwise securely attached to something having a permanent location on the ground.
The City of Derby encourages prospective operators of Little Free Libraries to submit proposed locations for review by City of Derby staff to ensure the above listed requirements have been satisfied.
OK, so what if your town is being really strict and you need to go before the City Council or seek a variance in zoning laws? We consulted with Professor Laurence H. Tribe and Tristan Duncan of Shook, Hardy and Bacon L.L.P. to get their input on Spencer’s case. If your town is using a similar argument to the one the City Council of Leawood used (Little Libraries are “prohibited detached structures”), here are some arguments Duncan and Tribe suggested:
- Is your Library similar to other “detached” (but likely allowed) structures like birdhouses? If the “detached structure” ordinance is interpreted to prohibit a Little Free Library but not a birdhouse or other similarly small free-standing object that has no communicative function, then it raises real free speech problems. So, a question for your City Council is: what other exceptions are made to the “detached structure” ordinance? The City cannot constitutionally permit bird feeders, for example, but discriminate against Little Libraries. That preferential treatment arguably abridges Free Speech under the First Amendment of the Federal Constitution.
- Is your Library more like a piece of freestanding art than a shed? Suggest to the authorities in question that the “detached structure” ordinance may not even apply since your Library is more like a piece of neighborhood art. Many cities have Art Object
ordinances that permit structures in the yard with an aesthetic quality. The First Amendment also protects symbolic and aesthetic ways of communicating beyond the written word; you might have a double whammy argument. Your Library is both a structure serving a communicative/educational function as well as aesthetic expression.
- Is your Library more like sign than a shed? Sign ordinances must meet a very strict standard before the City can prohibit their erection since they have a communicative function, which the First Amendment protects. Similar reasoning should apply to your Library.
Arguing to keep your Library is one way to go, but you might also consider looking for loopholes in the rules. Tricia Rightmire of Shawnee, Kansas did just that. When she found out that her HOA’s bylaws wouldn’t let her have a freestanding object in her yard, she got creative.
“I decided to work around [the bylaws] by putting my collection in a wagon, calling it a Little Free Bookmobile, and taking it on a daily walk around the neighborhood!” said Tricia. “I’ve got signs coming, a website for it put together, and have drummed up some community enthusiasm and book donations!”
Whatever your situation, we hope that the tips above help you start a Little Library or keep yours running. We have found that City Council members, HOAs and neighbors (even the grumpy ones) are all just people who can learn to love Little Libraries if you’re willing to work with them. Whenever possible, keep it friendly and show that you’re willing to abide by the rules. And if all else fails, a little creativity can go a long way.