North Carolina’s municipalities, from the largest cities to the smallest villages, are creations of the state. As such, they are granted only those powers that the state wishes to imbue. There is no “home rule,” a concept that 40 states grant their municipalities, in some form.
The idea behind home rule is that the level of government closest to the people “knows best” how to protect its interests and its people. So when it comes to issues such as zoning, code enforcement, taxation and service provision, the government closest to the people is the most responsive. It’s a pretty classic tenet of conservatism and republicanism.
But the conservative Republicans who control the General Assembly like power and prefer it be centralized, and not just for statewide matters. This year, the House and Senate have taken up a number of subjects — from high school athletics to tree regulation — that they think can be better decided by big government.
Even sneakier, many of these things have been included in the state budget now under consideration. A document meant to disburse dollars and cents also has dozens of pages geared toward legislating matters that, as standalone bills, probably would never become law.
The potential local impact is profound.
Tight on the Reins
Most of the legislation limiting municipal authority centers around development and construction. Lawmakers for whom you will never be able to vote are about to dictate whether builders can clear-cut lots for home construction; whether developers will have to do a traffic impact study of their projects before building them; or whether towns and cities will have to rush through reviews of submitted projects to meet arbitrary deadlines.
Another bill would allow property owners in a town’s extraterritorial jurisdiction, or ETJ, to get water and sewer service if there is capacity. Currently, those seeking such services request annexation, so the property owners would pay property taxes. The change could dangerously overextend services to developments that aren’t actually in municipal limits.
Locally, there is much hand-wringing about the legislation that would prevent municipalities from regulating tree removal unless they first get permission from the legislature.
Pinehurst officials, in particular, are worked up about this because the village is in the middle of developing extensive regulations meant to preserve the tree canopy, and property aesthetics and values.
“How, in the state of North Carolina, did it somehow become harmful for local governments to celebrate our beautiful, treed landscape by incentivizing the retention of mature trees?” Mayor John Strickland and Village Manager Jeff Sanborn wrote in a letter to lawmakers earlier this month.
One for All?
The village is not totally blameless here. It has, at times, been guilty of crafting regulations so long, detailed and tedious they sent builders running into the welcoming arms of lawmakers. Their current attempt to preserve mature trees and require plantings are similarly bewildering in many places, forcing Village Council member Lydia Boesch to say at one point, “It just felt like we were interfering with private property rights. I am all for making our village green, but I see us doing it on our corridors and our streetscape restoration plan.”
But the answer is not stripping the power of local governments to govern. Lawmakers in Charlotte or up in the mountains have no clue as to what Pinehurst or Carthage residents prefer in the way of tree preservation or traffic counts.
In their letter to lawmakers, Strickland and Sanborn write of “a march toward elimination of local government discretion in perverse and harmful ways.
“It is the job of local governments to balance the primacy of individual property owners’ rights with community aspirations and character.
“One size does not fit all.”
This nation’s original Republican, Thomas Jefferson, once said, “That government is best which governs least.” He’d be aghast to see how that’s going here these days.