Should local governments be free to require racial segregation of schools and businesses? Should they be free to ban guns? Should they be free to abolish private property and implement full socialism?
If you answered “no” to any of these questions, congratulations – you don’t believe in unlimited local control.
So why do politicians appeal to “local control” to defend restrictive zoning as if that ended the debate?
A case in point is Rep. Len Turcotte, who recently wrote that the state legislature should not supervise local governments’ zoning policies because such supervision would be “similar to central planning models used by socialist countries.” Meanwhile, he equates unlimited municipal land-use regulation to “laissez-faire.”
Rep. Turcotte has it exactly backward. Zoning is centralized planning of land use. It says, once and for all time, where all the different land uses will be permitted and the detailed requirements they must meet. Sure, zoning ordinances could be comprehensively revised, but few municipalities have ever done this, so we’re stuck with maps and rules largely reflecting what people thought our economy and society would look like 50, 60, or 70 years ago.
Thank goodness we have a variance process to allow some exceptions on a case-by-case basis. However, variances are costly, time-consuming, and difficult. Many bad land uses are locked in because the landowners do not qualify for a variance.
True laissez-faire in land use would be to repeal the state law authorizing zoning. This is a bad idea because many homeowners have come to rely on zoning to protect their neighborhood quality when we should have used private covenants, the common law, and nuisance ordinances from the beginning. We’re not starting over from scratch, so we can’t abolish zoning.
But surely we can get rid of the worst excesses and stupidities. An example of a blatantly irrational zoning regulation that most towns have is parking minimums: to build a home or a business, you have to blacktop a certain amount of space for parking. More parking sounds good, but what do you have to give up to get that parking?
Parking minimums are irrational because the landowner has every interest in building the right amount of parking for the anticipated land use. There’s no market failure here. When landowners build too much parking to meet a regulation, we end up with more impervious surface, fewer trees, more “dead space” that is burning hot in summer and windy-freezing in winter, more salt and oil runoff into groundwater, more auto dependence, more costly housing, and more just plain ugliness. Parking minimums are a good example of a stupid regulation that should just be abolished everywhere.
New zoning regulations take away the use of private property, a fundamental right. Some states require governments to compensate you for this kind of regulatory taking, but not New Hampshire. If local governments had to pay market value for the rights they take away, maybe they would behave in a more rational fashion, but that’s not the reality we’re living with today.
Where does local control make sense? Taxes and provision of public services. When local governments fund schools, police, fire, roads, and parks out of their own property taxes, they have every incentive to provide the mix that their residents want. Otherwise, people would move out, property values would decline, and the remaining residents would make changes.
But it doesn’t make sense for local governments to have their own regulatory and criminal justice policies, for instance. As with zoning, we would end up with tyranny of the local majority. Local governments shouldn’t be free to confiscate your guns, legalize slavery, or shake down passing motorists for cash – wicked projects that real local governments have attempted in the past. Legislators and courts should step in to stop them.
In the same way, the New Hampshire legislature needs to put guardrails on out-of-control local zoning. Not only is it bizarre to see some self-described conservatives defend central planning of land use and the violation of private property rights, but it’s also political suicide for Republicans to try to deny the very real housing problem in this state caused by government regulation. Legislators like Rep. Turcotte need to stop relying on lazy “local control” tropes to justify doing nothing and instead unleash the real free market in housing, which is private enterprise, not municipal government.