Higher Levels of Land-Use Control

In the last several decades, the state governments and the federal government have asserted some control over land-use decisions that were formerly left up to local governments. This assertion has been termed "the quiet revolution." The phrase comes from the title of a book by Bosselman and Callies. They state,

The ancien regime being overthrown is the feudal system under which the entire pattern of land development has been controlled by thousands of individual local governments, each seeking to maximize its tax base and minimize its social problems, and caring less what happens to all others.

The tools of the revolution are new laws taking a wide variety of forms but each sharing a common theme—the need to provide some degree of state or regional participation in the major decisions that affect the use of our increasingly limited supply of land.26

Much of the force for such laws comes from environmental concern, which as noted earlier increased greatly during the 1960s. In general, land- use controls emanating from higher than local levels of government do not supersede local controls. Rather, they add another layer of control. Thus the applicant must satisfy not only the local jurisdiction, but also the higher- level jurisdiction. Higher-level controls are found most often where there is a clear public interest beyond the borders of the single community. Very often, also, higher-level controls are found in environmentally fragile areas, for example, coastal zones.

Why Is Higher-Level Control Necessary? One might ask why higher-level control of things like wetland development is necessary. After all, do not individuals as residents of a locality have the same degree of concern with environmental quality that they have as citizens of the state?

Part of the answer comes down to the issue of externalities.27 If a community grants a rezoning that enables a shopping center development to obliterate a wetland, the fiscal gains of that development accrue to that community. So, too, may many of the employment gains. At least some of the increases in land values are also likely to be captured by community residents. On the other hand, the unfavorable effects may be felt outside the community. For example, increased storm-water runoff may have no significant effect on the community but may cause flooding downstream.

Expanding the level of decision making to the state reduces the chance that gains for a few individuals will swing their decision and increases the chance that widespread effects will be given their due weight.

The other big reason for higher-level controls over environmental issues is technical complexity. Local governments may not have the time and expertise to do the data gathering and analysis required for good decision making. A variety of state-level controls on development are mentioned in Chapters 14 and 15.

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