Local Control or Centralized Planning? There’s a Third Answer.

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A couple years ago, I had a maddening phone conversation with a Strong Towns reader that encapsulated much of what’s wrong with America’s approach to planning and development regulation. I have a lot of conversations like the one that I’m about to describe. I think of them as “Can’t I just—?” stories.

This reader, a charismatic Air Force veteran and self-employed artist, had built—literally built—her own accessory dwelling unit (ADU) on her property: a combination art studio and small living space, so that she could do her work and rent out the main house to help cover the building costs. The city planner told her he couldn’t approve it as a residential unit, but that if she resubmitted the exact same plans labeled “garage/shop/studio,” it could be of unlimited size. So she did.

When a new zoning administrator took over at City Hall, he took it as his responsibility to enforce the strict letter of the code, and contacted our reader about her unauthorized ADU, informing her that she must either move out of her home or evict her tenant. Otherwise, she was faced with the prospect of a lengthy battle and thousands of dollars in legal fees to request a variance. (I’ve omitted her name and location because, at the time of our conversation, she was concerned that our sharing the story would adversely affect her battle with the city.)

Meanwhile, five miles up the road, development of a 9,000-acre, master-planned community was rapidly underway, in a stark illustration of whom the prevailing planning system empowers and whom it disempowers.

Where does this kind of story fit into major narratives about planning and zoning? In recent years, the contest over who should get to set land-use rules in America’s changing cities has been largely framed as a choice between local control, on one side, and the preemptive use of state (or federal) authority to override local control for the greater good, on the other.

People on both sides of the argument use this framing. Just witness two recent, hotly discussed pieces of national media. On the one hand, The New York Times feature “Twilight of the NIMBY” by Conor Dougherty (which I discussed with Abby Kinney on an episode of the Upzoned podcast) profiles the founder of Livable California, a group opposed to (essentially all) statewide land-use and housing reform. She positions her advocacy as a staunch defense of communities’ right to self-determination. On the other hand, a recent Atlantic article by Jerusalem Demsas is titled “Community Input is Bad, Actually” and makes the case that a local veto over things like affordable housing and clean energy infrastructure amounts to giving an unrepresentative minority the ability to hold basic societal needs hostage, and that the answer is to move much of this decision making to the state level.

Yet the narrative of “local control vs. centralized control” is missing something crucial about the actual stakes of the issue, as illustrated by the story I began with above. It doesn’t really capture the reality that local authority can be just as coercive and maddening as distant authority. Or that local governance can serve to stymie bottom-up action while empowering top-down, centralized forces every bit as much as state or federal lawmaking can do the same.

On the other hand, I reject the notion, popular in some advocacy circles, that if you want solutions to our pressing national problems, then you have to reject localism itself and favor centralized power. I am, at heart, a localist. Self-determination is a timeless principle of democracy, and it is simply true that the people who live in a place have both the deepest understanding of it, and the most skin in the game when it comes to what happens there. People ought to have meaningful agency in shaping the environment in which they live everyday, and that we will have healthier, more prosperous, more resilient places to live in where that is the case.

It’s just that the question we need to be asking is this: What does such “meaningful agency” look like in practice?

To get there, we need to ditch a simple-minded vision of local authority or control, in favor of a vision of true community empowerment. And the latter, perhaps paradoxically, requires relinquishing some control and tolerating a little more chaos than many in the ardent “local control” camp seem to want to.

When Too Much Democracy Disempowers

In practice, local control over land use often means an abundance of formal processes. Lots of mandatory permit applications, public meetings, formal votes. But this sort of hyper-democracy can very often mean a situation where it’s easy to be told “no” to something, but slow, costly, and cumbersome to get a “yes” to move forward. In Seattle, an infamous design review panel can send apartment projects literally back to the drawing board because the members don’t like the color of brick, or think the proposed building looks “too historic.” In San Francisco, a controversial provision called Discretionary Review allows effectively any citizen to block any permit, for any reason, and force a laborious public hearing. It has infamously been weaponized by small business owners to target prospective competitors who want to open up nearby.

These are extreme, almost parodic examples of local democracy run amok, but they are the tip of a much greater iceberg. In a very real way, local control of development—in the sense of a veto, or a convoluted set of hurdles—simultaneously empowers one segment of the local community and disempowers another: the small business owner trying to open up, or the artist trying to create a viable live-in studio space.

Community power can look like voting on things. It can also look like building things, literally or proverbially. One measure of “local control” is how much the community, through its representatives, is able to influence or restrict the development process. A very different measure concerns a different sort of local agency: How much actual power do I have to meaningfully alter the place in which I live? Can you create something incremental and experimental in a bid to meet your and your neighbors’ needs?

And if you or I don’t have that power, who does have it? I’ve written before about the way in which red-tape-heavy planning processes naturally produce gatekeepers and high barriers to entry. The result is that the local residents who might want to build something are the first to be shut out. It’s deep-pocketed corporate entities who have the resources to steamroll their way through the process, and who ultimately benefit from the exclusion of smaller competitors.

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