Local Government

Don't Confuse 'Local Control' With Small Government

Often, it can be exactly the opposite.


There's an old saying that you can ignore everything a person says before the word "but," as in "I believe in the lower taxes, but…" That's because everything following that word will contradict what the person said before it. Likewise, whenever a conservative politician uses the term "local control," you can discard whatever else that pol might say about limiting government. It's an excuse for empowering bureaucrats.

California's latest housing debate centers on Huntington Beach, which is challenging the state's recent housing reforms that force cities to approve housing projects on a "by right" basis—e.g., without all the nettlesome and subjective local-government approvals. If builders meet basic standards, they are free to build these projects.

That should be a dream come true for conservatives, who argue bureaucrats have too much discretionary power. The proper right-of-center regulatory framework is for officials to produce simple and objective standards—and let citizens operate freely within those boundaries. By contrast, progressives like giving regulators broad and subjective powers. (Hey, "experts" know best.)

The California Legislature doesn't get much right, as it usually favors hamfisted government. To its credit, it has recognized that overly burdensome state and local regulations impede housing construction and drive up home prices. Their new laws even make it easier to bypass a conservative bugaboo, the onerous California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

Yet conservatives, who like to lecture us about the importance of letting markets do their thing, are throwing a hissy fit. Now they tout "local control" as their prime animating principle. It's a shibboleth.

In Huntington Beach's lawsuit against the state, the city says the laws "deprive the City Council of its authority to zone property" and complains that allowing private companies to build homes without the city's subjective authority "overburdens existing city infrastructure, damages environmentally sensitive areas of the city, and devalues affected private properties."

Republican Mayor Tony Strickland, who lives in the kind of "affordable-housing" project his current policies likely would forbid, makes the hackneyed NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) argument: "If people in Huntington Beach don't want to live in a suburban community…they'd move to Los Angeles or San Francisco." The city attorney makes the view sound more highbrow: "This is all about whether the state controls local zoning or whether cities controls local zoning."

As Planetizen explains, "Local control is a term used to describe the legal powers of local governments (e.g., cities and counties) to create regulations." In other words, NIMBY conservatives such as Strickland argue for the "right" of governments to exert power and control. In this case, they are choosing bigger, more subjective, and heavy-handed government over deregulation and market forces—simply because it flows from the locals.

I've covered many land-use hearings. Typically, a builder or homeowner will propose a project. Staff members then impose their subjective design standards, the planning commission exacts concessions and the city council votes on the project in the same way that two wolves and a sheep vote on what's for dinner. Neighbors, who rarely like any change, exert a heckler's veto.

Local control isn't a principle, but a practical way to evaluate the proper level of government to undertake basic functions. Obviously, local governments are closer to the people and are the proper arm to fill potholes. You wouldn't want to depend on far-off bureaucrats to do that. The goal of conservatism is not to assure that a local bureaucrat is the one to erode your property rights. The real principle is the advancement of freedom.

That's why one of the current legislative goals of the conservative movement is to advance state "pre-emption" laws that limit the ability of local governments to set their own minimum wages, pass strict gun-control laws and enact tobacco bans. The Left is apoplectic about this given that local governments often are far more liberal than state governments.

And let's face it, if these California conservatives believed in local control as the be-all and end-all, they'd have to oppose Proposition 13 and other statewide limits on local taxing authority. So, "local control" is not their principle, but NIMBYism is.

This column was first published in The Orange County Register.