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Local Control: Best Discipline for Big Business, Big Government

Decisions often best that come from home

March 1, 2000 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

A newspaper reporter asked me a good question last winter. We were watching from the balcony above the House of Representatives as lawmakers passed Senate Bill 205, a law that strips local governments of their power to regulate agriculture. The reporter said he didn't understand the Institute's opposition to S.B. 205: "Doesn't it give agriculture the kind of consistent state rules that you want for controlling sprawl?" he asked.
Our firm position in both cases is that local governments should be in the driver's seat. The state should set high goals for taming sprawl and supporting agriculture, and help local officials achieve them. Instead, when it comes to solving sprawl, the state has run away from its responsibilities by doing next to nothing. And when it comes to agriculture, the state did just about the worst thing. It stripped local officials of their authority to act on real land use concerns, like large, smelly, polluting livestock factories.
It's too easy to point to the abundance of local governments in Michigan, not the lack of state leadership, as the problem. With its 2,884 units of land use decision makers, from townships to school districts, Michigan is one of the most locally-controlled states in the nation. This leads to a motley mix of local zoning rules, where ordinances can change every few miles.
Proponents of S.B. 205 as well as Smart Growth bemoan this -- but largely for different reasons. How they line up on the issue of "local control" illustrates the driving values behind their differing policies.
For example, Michigan Governor John Engler, state Senator George McManus (R-Traverse City), and home-building lobbies lean against such Smart Growth tools as the Michigan Natural River Act. This 1970 law provides a process for overcoming fragmented zoning to protect rivers, which run through many jurisdictions, from damaging development. It gives communities that want Natural River designation a set of minimum standards to start with -- and go beyond -- when designing rules that apply across township and county boundaries.
Michigan's politically conservative powers charge that the Natural River Program is a Big Government attack on Home Rule because it raises the regulatory bar for all local governments on a designated river.
The word "raises" is a key point to remember as we turn now to Sen. McManus' sponsorship of S.B. 205. The senator, his colleagues, and associated lobbyists sold the bill as a protection for Michigan's farm economy against unreasonable and conflicting local agriculture ordinances.
But hundreds of rural people who protested the bill told another story. Township officials, many of them farmers, explained that S.B. 205 would leave local governments helpless because, unlike the Natural River Act, it does not give communities a set of minimumstandards to build upon. S.B. 205 offers only voluntary state guidelines by which agriculture operators regulate themselves until they have a manure spill. No one from state government checks livestock factories' multi-million gallon cesspits for safety.And now, with S.B. 205, no one from local government can do that either.
Home Rule is a sacred cow for opponents of Smart Growth when local protections on rivers, sand dunes, and lakes are full of holes from township to township. Their commitment to Home Rule evaporates, however, when local governments work to fill the big regulatory gaps the state leaves for business interests such as livestock factories to do what they will, regardless of local values.

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