How Demands for ‘Local Control’ Become an Excuse for NIMBYism

“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.”

“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.”

Why Can’t We Build Anything?

“it’s not true that Washington is actually “sending the money.” Because of Congress’ longstanding inability to perform one of its most basic functions—pass a budget—significant swathes of transportation spending are stalled at 2020 levels. In November, the infrastructure bill did indeed authorize over a trillion in spending. But before all of that money can actually head out the door, there needs to be an appropriations bill in place”

“The U.S. is the sixth-most expensive country in the world to build rapid-rail transit infrastructure like the New York City subway or the Washington, D.C., metro system.
Part of the reason is just plain waste and corruption. The federal infrastructure bill has created massive incentives for rent-seeking while ballooning the municipal lobbying sector. Like contestants on a game show, states and localities are scrambling for dollars, correctly understanding that this might be the only major windfall in this area for a decade or more—again, largely due to Congress’ inability to do its job in a predictable way in concert with a chief executive who can set clear achievable policy priorities.

More than 1,000 municipal entities spent just shy of $50 million on federal lobbyists in the second half of 2021 as the infrastructure bill was finalized and passed, according to data tracked by OpenSecrets. That’s about 7 percent higher than the $46.7 million that municipal entities spent in the same period of 2020, which was hardly a dry spell given the federal pandemic spending that was already underway. That number likely underestimates the real demand, since it doesn’t capture contracts signed right at the end of the year.

In theory, no lobbyist is needed to tap into the new infrastructure money. At the end of January, Mitch Landrieu, a former mayor of New Orleans who is overseeing infrastructure spending for the Biden administration, proudly announced the existence of a 465-page guidebook that explains the different pots of money available to communities, along with a data file that is—get this—searchable!

Despite all this, there’s no reason to think the U.S. is notably worse on these measures than other developed nations. Likewise, while some of the cost is inputs, such as material and labor, they don’t explain the disparity fully. A recent study of the interstate highway system from George Washington University professor Leah Brooks and Yale University professor Zachary Liscow suggests that the X-factor is “citizen voice,” which can take the form of legitimate opposition to eminent domain, or which might be less charitably described as “not in my backyard” obstructionism and environmental regulatory foot dragging.”

Joe Biden Wants To Spend Trillions on Infrastructure. His Environmental Reforms Ensure He’ll Have To.

“Passed in 1969, NEPA requires federal agencies to study the environmental impacts of actions they take, whether that’s funding a new highway or approving a new pipeline. Over the decades, the burden imposed by NEPA has grown: The environmental reviews it mandates take years on average to complete and can run hundreds if not thousands of pages.
Donald Trump’s administration tried to streamline things a bit by limiting the environmental effects that agencies had to examine and by putting definitive time and page limits on NEPA reviews.

Even those marginal changes, implemented in September 2020, proved controversial with many environmentalists. Their concerns have resonated with the Biden administration.

“The basic community safeguards we are proposing to restore would help ensure that American infrastructure gets built right the first time, and delivers real benefits—not harms—to people who live nearby,” said CEQ Chair Brenda Mallory on Thursday.

The proposed rule published by the CEQ in the Federal Register would make a number of changes.

Most significantly, it would restore requirements that agencies’ NEPA reviews take into account the indirect and cumulative effects of projects.”

“Environmentalist groups have generally praised these changes.”

“Other NEPA experts are more critical, arguing that this is an ineffective and potentially counterproductive way to address climate change.

“All it does is create a little more paperwork,” says Eli Dourado, a senior research fellow at Utah State University’s Center for Growth and Opportunity. “Given the need to build a lot of infrastructure and new technologies and physical stuff in the world, NEPA is probably on net harming our response to climate change.”

Indeed, NEPA has slowed down a number of projects that environmentalists would typically support for their emission-reducing potential.

The U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s 2019 decision to perform a cumulative impact analysis under NEPA of a massive wind farm being constructed off the coast of Massachusetts has significantly delayed that project.

It will likewise take years for the federal government to perform a NEPA-mandated review of a plan to charge drivers a toll to enter lower Manhattan. Environmentalists and transit advocates have generally praised that congestion pricing plan for its potential to reduce carbon emissions and to raise money for public transit. The tolls were supposed to be up and running in January 2021. The need to perform an environmental assessment for the project will mean that it now won’t start until 2023 at the earliest.

All the additional green investments the Biden administration and Democrats in Congress want to fund with their $1 trillion infrastructure bill and $3.5 trillion Build Back Better legislation could run into a similar fate.

“It’s making some of the infrastructure projects they want to do radically more expensive,” says Neil Chilson, a senior research fellow at Stand Together. He says the regulatory changes will also empower the nation’s NIMBYs to slow down projects they dislike.”

“By expanding the number of effects that have to be considered in the NEPA process, the Biden administration is giving project opponents more room to claim that an environmental review is insufficient.

Federal agencies and private project sponsors, in turn, will have to spend more time preparing litigation-proof environmental documents to preempt these complaints, says Chilson.

That could be particularly damaging for solar plants that are proposed to be constructed on public lands in the American west, and which have attracted fierce opposition from local groups concerned about their impact on endangered species and recreational lands.”

“CEQ has said that reversing those Trump-era tweaks is only the first phase of its planned rulemaking. In a second phase, the administration says, it plans to make more substantive changes that create “efficient and effective environmental reviews.”

That leaves open the possibility that we’ll get more productive reforms later on, says Dourado.”