Thursday, November 8, 2018

Learning from Local Response to Environmental Disruption

By Keith H. Hirokawa and Jonathan Rosenbloom

Keith H. Hirokawa is Professor of Law at Albany Law School

Jonathan Rosenbloom is Dwight D. Opperman Distinguished Professor of Law at Drake Law School

This is the fourth in a series of essays from the Environmental Law Collaborative on the theme: "Environmental Law.  Disrupted."


A brief perusal of the history of environmental law illustrates the ways law might be employed to suffer through a constant state of disruption. In the past, we have largely relied on state and federal environmental legislation and regulation to accomplish the task, in part because of a fear that local governments will “race to the bottom” and take a competitive advantage against their more regulatory-prone neighbors. We would suggest that the reliance on state and federal regulation, as well as the lack of confidence in local governance, has served to undermine sincere dialogue on the potential of local government to govern well both within and across boundaries.

The present circumstance of climate and ecological disruption will provide an opportunity to revisit the issue of local environmental law. Specifically, climate change will require more engagement with local governments because of the local stakes involved. Given current and likely future disruptions from rising sea levels, heat waves, and storm events, local governments will be faced with coastline insecurity, vulnerable infrastructure and difficulties in meeting essential human needs, geological instability, uncertain ecological changes (such as invasive species), water scarcity, and population migration. Such changes will permeate social, economic, and environmental expectations in every community. Given the role that local governments play in responding to challenges to local quality of life and security, local governments will inevitably become players.

There are and will be instances where local governments manipulate social, economic, and environmental resources to protect their own. But there are and will be examples that illustrate the contrary. Some local governments forego regulation of extraction and resource development, while others will adopt more comprehensive land use regulations that maintain ecosystem services and other quality-of-life determinants. But differences in local governance are neither surprising nor unwarranted – governments illustrate legitimacy though responsiveness to local needs, and local needs differ across boundaries. More importantly, norms and values develop in very local ways, and it would be a mistake to disregard value differences, even at minute levels, that occur across borders.

Local is not only a circumstance that is relevant to understanding particular governmental actions. Local also provides a framework for understanding common concerns such as shared resources, regional circumstances, and intergovernmental cooperation. And, in the context of disruption, local can play a significant role in at least the following four categories: responsiveness; baseline information generation; innovation research; and normalization.

  1. Local is Responsive to Change

Environmental disruption is coming and, in fact, is here. Law will have to develop new strategies to face the new challenges and immediacy will be a factor. Government strategies should be designed to launch on short notice. It is easier to experiment with new regulations and approaches at the local level: first, because the closeness of local government to governed communities demands it; and second, because the scale of local governance makes debate, passage and implementation of new approaches easier.

Local governments are acutely responsive to social, economic, and environmental change for good reason. Regardless of how such disruptions are perceived on a regional, state or federal level, they are felt locally. The invention of the elevator and automobile fundamentally altered the role and potential of urban areas to provide homes and economic opportunities. In turn, such disruptions helped shape attention to infrastructure and governmental service needs. More recently, local governments have expeditiously responded to water shortages by prohibiting water waste, restricting specific water uses, and requiring installation of efficient water fixtures and grey water use in new construction and building renovations. Similarly, local governments have controlled stormwater flows by implementing measures for permeable pavements, green roofs, and rainwater harvesting. See, e.g., Chatham, MA, Protective Bylaws § 4(B) (2016) (floodplain development and permeable driveways);Denver, CO, Code of Ordinances §§ 10-300 to 10-308 (2017) (green roofs);San Diego, CA, Rain Harvesting Rebate Program (cash incentives rain barrel installation).

  1. Local as Source of Baseline Information

As a matter of course, local governments gather and assess information on local vulnerabilities to disruptions. Local governments keep a watchful eye on natural and built infrastructure assets, the availability of nature resources, housing stocks, access to food and energy, and population dynamics. Local governments often require permit applicants to provide critical information on development elevations, habitat values, and slope stability. Likewise, local planning and development review processes have resulted in a wealth of information on groundwater budgets, canopy cover, and buildable lands. Other local governments require energy benchmarking and audits for larger buildings and governmental operations. See, e.g., Atlanta, Georgia Code of Ordinances § 8-2002 (2016) (requiring both energy benchmaking and auditing for certain public and private buildings); Denver, CO Code of Ordinances § 4-53 (2016) (commercial building benchmarking and reporting); Seattle, WA Municipal Code § 22.920.010 (2010)(requiring building benchmarks and reporting); Austin, TX Code of Ordinances § 6-7-31 (2011) (commercial facilities required to calculate annual energy budget). The information is commonly used to inform a variety of local government decisions such as land use planning and permitting, budget decisions and infrastructure planning, event planning, intergovernmental cooperation and even the exercise of eminent domain. The information helps to identify future risks and costs, the potential for public interest in particular problems, and the solutions that might be relevant.

Local governments are not better at gathering this information due to sophistication or funding. Local governments are better at it because of their access to a deep pool of relevant information and their lens through which the information is discerned. The important point here is to recognize the critical role of location to the way local governance happens. Based on geological, ecological, economic, and cultural circumstances, communities adapt to the demands of living in a particular place because communities must survive in their own place. This type of experienced information is tattooed with the values that particular resources have to their beneficiaries and users and reflected in local resource decisions.

  1. Local as a Laboratory for Innovative Responses

Communities approach particular changes in their own ways – some dig in to wait out changes, some take more protectionist ideals and seek to maintain the status quo through zoning, where others employ more forward-thinking measures through long range planning. It should not be surprising that different communities often understand changing circumstances in ways that appear to contradict. But it is also not surprising that a particular community’s reaction to new challenges follows more or less the same basic premise: although local needs and circumstances will vary, human needs and quality of life are the common driver.

Accordingly, the third observation about the importance of local is variation in innovation. The development of technologies and approaches to construction, infrastructure, economic development priorities, education, and housing (and others) are designed to resolve the effects of disruption and secure a community’s vision against the backdrop of change. Importantly, variation in local responses to disruption generates significant information on what works and the local circumstances that facilitate stories of success.

Many local governments are experimenting with incentives to promote green building techniques and even requiring developments to implement the most sophisticated building materials. While the federal government pursues policies that support coal and concrete, local governments are pushing forward with promoting technologically advanced forms of building. Lancaster, California, requires that many new buildings meet net zero standards or be outfitted with a solar energy system that can produce two watts of power for every square foot of the home. Lancaster, Cal., Energy Code § 15.28.020 (c) (2017). Georgetown, Texas, offers multiple incentives, including net metering and rebates, for residents to add renewable energy sources to their properties. Georgetown, TX, Code of Ordinances § 13.04.083 (D) (2) (2012). Miami Beach, Florida, a city already struggling with climate changes, is assessing building fees to combat the impacts of rising sea levels through innovative projects such as environmental restoration projects, monitoring, green infrastructure, and stormwater quality improvements. Miami Beach, FL, Code of Ordinances § 133-6(a)(2016).

  1. Local as Normalization

Elevating location in an analysis of environmental governance does not suggest any particular value as a normative matter. There will be few response strategies that will be effective in every community, and a “good” strategy may be best guided by the notion that it is good if it would work here. In the meantime, preemption is a good check on local governance, and top-down approaches to land use regulation may offer meaningful constraints on the bad kind of intergovernmental and inter-community competition. Nevertheless, the pervasiveness of location suggests that we should not rush to preempt local initiative. In the meantime, although local should be recognized for uniqueness, the contingencies in the arena of local regulation can serve as a gauge for developing norms. Successful strategies can be borrowed and adapted to different communities, which in turn will generate additional confidence as response strategies across the spectrum of ecological, geological and hydrological difference normalize in the common goals that drive locational adaption.

Climate Change, Current Affairs, Governance/Management, Land Use, Law, Legislation, North America, Sustainability, US, Water Resources | Permalink