Property Rights

How Demands for 'Local Control' Become an Excuse for NIMBYism

Conservatives' guiding principle should always be less government control, not more.


A bipartisan coalition of Not In My Back Yarders (NIMBYs) remains aghast at two of the most significant and praiseworthy new laws that California has approved in years. They are gathering signatures to qualify a statewide initiative that would overturn Senate Bills 9 and 10, which jump-start housing construction throughout the state.

S.B. 9 allows property owners to build two units in neighborhoods now zoned for single-family homes. It also allows lot splits that potentially allow four units where one house now exists. Few owners will take advantage of the rules, but it will mean—clutch your pearls time—some homeowners will have stylish new duplexes on their blocks.

S.B. 10 streamlines approval of 10-unit properties, such as small condominium projects near transit lines or on underutilized infill lots. Currently, local governments restrict duplexes and make it extremely difficult for developers to create condo developments thanks to the usual litany of state and local environmental and anti-growth regulations.

Opponents' hypocrisy is rich. These "get off my lawn" conservatives claim to be upholding the principle of local control by arguing that local government officials rather than bureaucrats in far-off Sacramento get to make development decisions. It sounds good in theory given the Jeffersonian concept that the government closest to the people governs best.

The better quotation (actually used by Henry David Thoreau but often misattributed to Thomas Jefferson) is "that government is best which governs the least." The goal—for those of us who value freedom—isn't to allow the right government functionary to control us, but to have less government control overall.

Local officials are easier to kick out of office than officials in Sacramento or Washington, D.C., but the locals can be extremely abusive. They know where we live, after all. I've reported extensively on California's defunct redevelopment agencies, and local tyrants would routinely abuse eminent domain under the guise of local control.

"Under S.B. 9, cities are required to approve these lot splits 'ministerially,' without any reviews, hearings, conditions, fees or environmental impact reports," complains my Southern California News Group colleague, Susan Shelley.

Oh, please.

Conservatives have for decades complained about the subjective nature of bureaucratic and public reviews, the evils of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), and excessive fees. Now there's a law that fixes that, albeit in a limited manner, and they are grabbing their pitchforks.

S.B. 9 and S.B. 10 do not put Sacramento bureaucrats in charge of the locals. Instead, they deregulate certain development decisions, by requiring officials to approve a project "by right" provided it meets all the normal regulations. It eliminates subjectivity and defangs CEQA. Yet this greatly upsets them.

Conservatives are savvy enough to know the distinction between state laws that roll back government power and ones that exert government power. (That's why they often support pre-emption laws.) S.B. 9 and S.B. 10 do the former. This "local control" mantra is a way to sound principled when their transparent guiding principle is simply: Not in my neighborhood, you don't.

Local control is the principle when given the choice between, say, a regulatory edict from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency or one from the South Coast Air Quality Management District, or a homeless program from Sacramento rather than City Hall. Conservatives' guiding principle should always be less government control, not more.

If conservatives seriously believe local control is the trump card, then they should lobby for the repeal of Proposition 13, which is a state-imposed restriction on local governments' authority to raise property taxes. I find Prop. 13 to be one of the best laws ever passed in this state. They should also oppose Republican efforts at the federal level to limit the ability of blue states to regulate the heck out of us.

Zoning laws are a creation of government regulation. Note how in older neighborhoods one finds a mish-mash of single-family homes, churches, apartments, and local stores. These often are among the most enticing neighborhoods, as anyone would attest who spends time in Old Town Orange or Pasadena.

There's nothing wrong with tract-house communities, but they didn't evolve naturally. Following World War II, the government decided to segregate single-family homes in one area, apartments in another, and shopping centers elsewhere. These new laws won't obliterate that historically unusual design, but they will loosen it up—not by edict, but by giving property owners more freedom.

As funny as it is to see conservatives upset at restrictions on CEQA and an expansion of property rights, it's even funnier to hear NIMBY liberals whine about the new laws. Even liberal cities are finding all sorts of half-baked reasons to impede these laws' implementation. They are for more affordable housing and diversity, but not around them.

Let's at least dispense with the idea that the opposition to S.B. 9 and S.B. 10 involves any principle beyond this one: Not In My Back Yard.

This column was first published in The Orange County Register.