Sunday, March 20, 2016

Local Versus State Control of Land Use

One of the big debates in city planning is who should call the shots over how land is used.  Legally, the power to control land use (of non-federally-owned land) rests with state governments, since the Tenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution delegates everything not specifically listed as a federal power to the states or to the people.  However, as a practical matter, most states further delegate this power down to local governments, incorporated cities and counties, which actually carry out most of that power in practice.

Let's brainstorm some pros and cons of this approach, with a particular focus on California.

Arguments in Favor of Local Control
  • Land use decisions primarily affect people in the immediate area of specific pieces of land.  For example, a new apartment building in Los Angeles might have a strong effect on people in Los Angeles, but not so much on people in San Francisco.
  • The State doesn't have the resources to develop and administer zoning codes for its whole territory.
  • The State Capitol in Sacramento is distant from most communities and individual legislators cannot reasonably be expected to have detailed local knowledge of every community in the state.
Arguments in Favor of State Control
  • Local governments represent only their residents, not the larger society.  This can be problematic if the local population is homogeneous (e.g. mostly wealthy, mostly one race or mostly homeowners).  A local government can use its land use authority to exclude certain "less desirable" people.  For example, it can mandate that most or all housing be detached single-family homes on large lots, which effectively excludes moderate and low income folks who need smaller lot sizes or multifamily housing to access an area.  The state represents people of all income levels, colors and housing tenures, whereas a local government might not.
  • Land use decisions aren't actually so local in their implications as we might think.  If a local government approves a sprawling, car-dependent subdivision, that creates greenhouse gas emissions that affect the whole state (to say nothing of the nation and the world).  The state is more apt to see and address big-picture problems like climate change, at least in a progressive state like California.
  • Local governments have incentives to push problems out, but the state often can't push problems out.  A great example is homelessness.  A local government might try to use its police and zoning to make it virtually impossible for homeless people to exist within its boundaries.  Once the homeless are out, they're someone else's problem.  The state usually can't effectively push the homeless out of its vast territory.  Therefore it has an incentive to actually address the problem, instead of pushing it out.
I don't think either set of arguments is 100% decisive.  However, when it comes to affordable housing and homelessness, the state may need to claw back some land use authority from local governments to ensure that the most vulnerable are protected, not excluded.

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