Local zoning boards are not democracy

Photo Credit: Getty

At the Competitive Enterprise Institute, we have often discussed the need to reform zoning, permitting, and building regulations, so I was intrigued by this interesting take on local permitting and community meetings from Slow Boring Substacker Matt Yglesias. Before new construction projects – and sometimes even renovations to individual houses – are granted permits, local government officials often hold public meetings so that neighbors can show up and complain about whatever new construction has been proposed. As someone who has been to several meetings of this type, I can assure you that the complaints vastly outnumber the positive comments.

These meetings are often contentious and unproductive. Fans of community input say they they’re absolutely necessary to a fair process, because having your voice heard at a public meeting is an example of democracy in action. Yglesias disagrees. 

In his Substack post, he tells the story about how it took him three months to get a permit to install solar panels on the roof of his home in D.C. because it was in an historic district. He first had to go to a meeting of his local Advisory Neighborhood Commission or ANC, make a presentation, and ask for their endorsement. Fortunately, he obtained that, after which he went before the District’s Historic Preservation Review Board, showed that he had the backing of his ANC, and was finally approved. He eventually got what he needed, but had to waste a significant amount of his own time.

He writes about this experience: “I don’t think this meeting-ism is a very compelling example of democracy in action; a much better example is the D.C. Council eventually changing the rules to make it easier to install solar panels.”

He goes on cite the example of the New York State legislature voting in 2019 to implement congestion pricing for cars coming into Manhattan – something which has likely just cleared its final legal hurdle this week. Despite being approved by a majority of the legislature, officials tasked with implementing the plan have had to spend over three years compiling a 4,000+ page review document, pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Yglesias writes:

What’s fascinating about this is that NEPA doesn’t even feature any substantive environmental standards. It’s a perfect example of what Nicholas Bagley calls “the procedure fetish,” a purely formal requirement that a lot of environmental impacts be thoroughly studied and thoroughly documented. Any action will make someone unhappy, and a big part of the post-1970 political order in the United States is that any governing decision is followed by a lot of lawsuits. So you do a lot of really arduous and time-consuming NEPA compliance so that you don’t lose in court. You do a lot of public hearings so that you don’t lose in court.

Having every substantive government decision followed by an endless series of legal challenges, often by parties who aren’t even directly affected by the project in question, is not a great way to design a process for allowing things to get built. Democracy is served when we elect our political leaders and they implement policies on our behalf.

We should not be giving veto power to everyone with nothing better to do than complain at community meetings. That’s an abuse of that process. We, as citizens, shouldn’t have to give up all of our free time to sit in middle school cafeterias in order to stop our argumentative neighbors from abrogating our property rights.

We’re much better off simply having a clear set of rules for what can be built, when, and where, without attempting to placate every neighbor who dislikes our new patio design or guest house.

We also covered this topic on Episode 27 of the Free the Economy podcast (permit segment begins at 8:15).