Capital Goods: August

Focus on the homefront

State Rep. Mike Stone repeated the question: “Does North Carolina have home rule?” The Sanford Republican kept asking Paul Luebke that as the Durham Democrat criticized legislation that he considered meddling in his hometown’s affairs, forcing it to provide water and sewer service to a proposed development that the City Council had twice rejected. Stone was driving home a point: In North Carolina, as in 13 other states, cities and towns do not control their fates. Municipalities are creatures of the state. They have only as much political power as lawmakers in Raleigh choose to dole out.

That has been made clear in this year’s legislative session. After spending two years scaling back annexation powers of cities and towns, the Republican majority again made life uncomfortable for municipalities. There have been spats over control of a water system in Asheville, the airport in Charlotte and a potential park in Raleigh. Dozens of other bills — some likely to pass, others not — would put new limits on powers such as zoning and planning.

The current legislature clearly sees local government, in general, and city government, in particular, as too big for their britches. As Tom Apodaca, the Hendersonville Republican who chairs the Senate Rules Committee, told The Charlotte Observer, “There is a definite feeling that cities have too much power and want to control everything.” But how does that jibe with his party’s pledge to focus on jobs and improving the economy?

The health of the big municipalities is integral to the state’s overall well-being. Cities of the Piedmont Crescent — from Raleigh through Durham, Greensboro and Winston-Salem to Charlotte — drive the economy. Most of the jobs are there. So is most of the population and economic innovation. The state’s health is dependent on their strength.

That’s not just my conclusion. Three years ago, Forbes magazine ranked the best places in the U.S. for business and careers. Raleigh was third, and Charlotte placed 17th. Richmond, Va., ranked 50th. Sixty years ago, it was larger than Raleigh and Charlotte combined. One reason for its current condition: In 1981, Virginia legislators put in place a moratorium on annexation that still stands.

During the House’s debate on that Durham-related bill in June, another legislator from that city called lawmakers’ intervening in local affairs unprecedented. Rep. Mickey Michaux should know. He has been in the General Assembly longer than anyone serving. Legislators don’t think they’re overstepping their boundaries. They believe they’re helping individuals and businesses fight unresponsive and unreasonable government entities.

So when lawmakers limit the types of design standards municipalities can impose on homebuilders, they see themselves protecting builders from unreasonable demands that raise costs for homebuyers. And when they propose a constitutional amendment that would eliminate cities’ planning and zoning authority outside their limits, they see themselves protecting the property rights of those who live beyond those municipal borders. Even altering control of the Asheville water system is justified with talk of how nonresidents’ rates subsidize unrelated services for city dwellers.

But all that ignores the fact that the people deciding design standards, water rates and subdivisions were elected to do that. And if the voters in those jurisdictions don’t like those decisions, they get a say in whether those officials remain in office. When local officials gathered at the Legislative Building March 27 for the North Carolina League of Municipalities-sponsored Town Hall Day, Elizabeth City Councilman Tony Stimatz said he had the distinct impression state lawmakers “don’t want to let us do our jobs.”

He missed the mark, but by just a hair. Legislators appear to be just as interested in enmeshing themselves in issues of local government as those of state government. John Forrest Dillon, an influential 19th century jurist and advocate of state control over municipalities, once wrote of such power: “As it creates, so may it destroy. If it may destroy, it may abridge and control.” If there ever were a question about who controls municipalities in North Carolina, it was answered this year. 

   
Scott Mooneyham is editor of The Insider, www.ncinsider.com. Email him at smooneyh@ncinsider.com.