Friday, March 19, 2010
The Artifice of Local Growth Politics -- Part I
Many thanks to Matt and the rest of the editors at the Land Use Prof Blog for inviting me to "guest blog" here about my paper on local growth politics. You can find the abstract and a link to the paper here or here. Let me start out by saying that the folks here at the Land Use Prof Blog have been doing a great job. The site is continuously updated with important and interesting developments in land use law. For me, the site is a must-read every day (especially now that I'm posting!)
In this post, I'll just say a few words about the paper's thesis, then outline where I hope to go in the next few posts. Evidence abounds that local politics are riven by conflict between developers, who push municipalities to pursue growth, and homeowners' groups, aka NIMBYs, who resist growth in or near their neighborhoods. There is substantial disagreement, however, about who "really" runs things in local politics, with developers arguing that they are unable to accomplish anything over the incessant objections of pampered homeowners, and neighborhood groups complaining that their concerns are totally ignored by developer-friendly bureaucrats. The conflict between developers and homeowners -- and confusion about who has the upper hand between them -- is especially acute in regions like southern California, which serves as a case study in my paper. I argue that politics in southern California have been structured in a way that heightens, rather than alleviates, the inherent tension between developers and homeowners. On one hand, most southern California cities use at-large voting systems, which maximize the influence of developers and dilute the influence of neighborhood groups. On the other hand, all California cities retain the right of local initiative, which slow-growth groups have used with increasing effectiveness in recent decades to counteract the pro-growth tendencies of the at-large system.
The juxtaposition of at-large voting and the local initiative thus enhances conflict between developer and homeowners. However, my research reveals that beneath this conflict there is a fundamental continuity between at-large voting and the local initiative (both of which, incidentally, were originally introduced into local politics during the Progressive age as complementary facets of the Progressive movement's efforts to reform local politics.) The structuring of local politics in southern California fosters an artificial dichotomy between pro-growth and anti-growth positions that subverts the possibility of compromise, truncates the municipal political agenda to a narrow conflict between competing middle class elites about whether to privilege the use or exchange value of property, and suppresses a wide range of views about growth and other issues, thus effectively silencing large portions of the metropolitan population whose views are inadequately captured by the pro-growth/no-growth binary. I further argue that the reason courts have rejected most challenges to this distorted political system is because they have placed far too much faith in the vigorous application of judicial review to compensate for the flaws in the political process. I conclude that a superior approach would be for courts to focus on correcting these process defects so as to enable a more robust conversation about growth and other local political issues
In future posts, I plan to address the impetus of the project, its contribution to existing scholarship, the impact of the recent real estate crisis on my thesis, southern California's suitability as a case study of national trends in growth politics, and the strengths and weaknesses of my proposed reforms.