Taking the Field: Why Local Land-Use Rules Matter

Rose Williams, NCLM Interim Executive Director

Attacks on local land-use authority have been the biggest thorn in the sides of cities and towns when it comes to policy proposals at the General Assembly.

Every year, dozens of bills are filed by state legislators calling for limitations on how cities and towns provide for zoning or other land uses. Sometimes the changes are small; sometimes great. Sometimes the bills go nowhere; sometimes they require huge efforts on the part of NCLM to try to stop or at least mitigate the damage.

At times, the N.C. Homebuilders Association, seeking more statewide standardization so that their large tract-home builders can save money by creating more uniform developments, is behind the proposed legislation. Other times, a single developer or development entity has the ear of a legislator. Or, an individual legislator is setting out to right some perceived wrong (or more often, wronging something that has long been right).

Sometimes cities and towns have lost, as was the case in 2015 with passage of restrictions on local aesthetic controls. Those controls had allowed cities and towns to control not only for the character of development, but to establish more safety rules for uses like mega-homes on beaches, with their multiple kitchens and meeting spaces, that become de facto hotels.

Over the five or six years, the work of staff and members with legislators has helped to change the landscape. I believe more legislators have come to understand that local land-use controls are required to preserve and enhance community character and respond to the diverse needs of each city and town. In turn, that community character becomes critical in attracting and keeping businesses and jobs, as well as bringing in new residents to fill those jobs. At this time, when more people can work from home and as cities compete for jobs and industry nationally and even globally, appearance and sense of place matter more than ever.

Unfortunately, however, this year we have seen the reprise of a lot of bad ideas that would restrict local land-use authority, with many coming from a single House committee. These include everything from another attempt to kill local tree ordinances to restrictions on conditional use zoning that is important to mixed-use developers in large cities, as well as smaller cities attempting to accommodate expanding businesses that are grandfathered in zones where that use would no longer be allowed. (You can read more about this legislation in, “Refighting Land-Use Battles” on page 20). We also continue to see attempts to hinder local control over short-term rentals, like AirBnB, despite a spate of bad publicity around the country regarding rentals that lead to criminal behavior and other bad outcomes for nearby residents and even the renters themselves.

It is far from clear that these bills will become law, although several have passed the House. City officials from around the state have been making their case to their legislators.

Again, our work has paid off. We see a deeper understanding of these issues by many legislators.

But we have more work to do.

Instead of simply fighting these efforts on a bill-by-bill basis, look for more of a wide-ranging effort from the governmental affairs and communications staffs to make the case more comprehensively. Media and educational appeals aimed at the larger public and the business community can help to make a difference so that we are not fighting piecemeal, and so that we can better enlist them in these efforts.

After all, who ultimately benefits from community character, walkable streets, accessible neighborhoods, and compatible uses created by inclusive, careful land-use planning? Who appreciates it when it is there, and who notices it when it is gone?