I had heard horror stories about the Town of Taos bureaucracy since before I moved here five years ago. While some of them sounded fantastical (though my hunch is that they in fact were not), it was clear to me that I wanted to avoid dealing with the TOT much like I would the plague; in reality the latter is rather difficult since I live on the Mesa where the rabbits have the plague and fleas which jump on the cats which one has to keep away the mice with Hanta. And so.
Avoiding the TOT didn't seem that hard since I live in the county. Far enough out in the county such that I don't have to deal with them either. Even when I first started looking for a place to open Sugar Bare, I wasn't that concerned both because I had a marked preference for the north side a la El Prado, but also because how hard could getting a business license be?
Ultimately I rented a spot in the middle of town, though luckily on the far side of the street that marks the boundary of the historic overlay zone. It was a commercial rental, clear from both what the landlords said and the layout of the space. I went to the town to fill out the seemingly straightforward business registration and there the problems ensued.
At first it seemed like the problem was narrowly averted and had a simple solution. Soon it became clear that that was not the case. Turns out that though the building was, and always has been commercial, it was in a residential zone. No matter that many of my neighbors, including the neighbor in the unit adjoining mine, as well as my landlord in the unit below mine, all had businesses with licenses obtained with no issue from the TOT, that fate was not to be mine. I had to get a conditional use permit.
Fast forward almost 2 months: past the red tag, the notification either in person or via certified mail with a return receipt sent to every neighbor within 300 feet of this over 3 acre property, the two committee meetings, the 8 copies of a ludicrous quantity of documents obtained in part from multiple trips to the County office. Past the constant background stress hanging out while I'm trying to start a business, which of course is stressful in itself, and here I am with a valid business registration that is no longer contingent upon approval by the Planning and Zoning Commission whose chairman seems hellbent on making everyone's life as murky and miserable as presumably is his own.
Along the way, and after winning the battle with bureaucracy, I discovered that mine is a TOT lite story. Mine has an ending. A clear, final ending (based upon the information currently at hand at least). And, my grievances with the planning office aside, they did give me a temporary license that allowed me to operate in my full capacity during this ordeal. For many others that is simply not the case.
Food trucks, which you would think like any and every small business would be welcomed with open arms by one of the poorest counties in one of the poorest states in the nation, are not. Archaic laws that made it difficult for them to exist were struck down just this week, and replaced with cumbersome regulations that make it significantly more expensive for them to operate.
Like many small businesses started by run of the mill people unable to adequately support themselves in an economy like Taos', food trucks appeal because of their comparatively low start-up costs. Take that away and you mine as well open a brick and mortar restaurant, with all of the inherent financial difficulties. Oddly, the predominant attitude seems to frown upon actual grassroots small businesses directed toward local consumers, instead supporting well-financed businesses directed towards tourists.
What I am unclear about is at what level does both this problem and its solution lie? While initially I was tempted to blame the TOT planning office wholly, I understand that they are at least attempting to enforce regulations uniformly, whether they are doing that successfully or not. Which then takes us to the TOT council members, as they are the ones who create said regulations. Is it past council members to blame for creating laws that stymie small businesses? Perhaps they were creating laws that once served a purpose? Is it the current and recent councils that have failed to take creative initiative to find ways to foster growth, or at least not inhibit it? Is the citizenry to blame? Do they not want change, instead hoping to preserve an idea of what once was? Is voter apathy and citizens' disconnect with their individual democratic power at fault?
I don't know the answer. I do know that I cannot vote in the TOT, even though I pay my gross receipts there. I do know that there are impassioned people speaking out to defend their rights and effect change whether for themselves or for those who come after. I feel like we're at a turning point. Taos has all the resources to be such a thriving community economically. What we do with those resources, however, remains to be seen.