Officials accuse state of over-reaching

Apr. 25, 2013 @ 05:09 PM

Local governments fear recent bills filed by the N.C. General Assembly threaten powers of local control.

This week, the Indian Trail Town Council discussed opposing state measures to remove town and county control over building inspections, aesthetic controls and other issues targeted by bills this session.

“(The General Assembly) seems to be exerting more and more control over the municipalities,” Luther said.

Matthews and Mint Hill wrote a resolution supporting local government and sent it to state legislators. Indian Trail should do the same, Luther said.

“One of the things that’s come up is this (House Bill) 150, about zoning and design and aesthetic controls,” Luther said. “It was introduced at the request of the North Carolina Home Builders Association and it would prevent cities from imposing aesthetic controls over one- and two-family dwellings in residential housing districts unless these controls are agreed to by the developer.”

Aesthetic control has real effects on quality of life, she said. When town residents felt their neighborhood’s developer was abandoning the unifying aesthetics, they fought to uphold them.

But HB 150 is just one of several bills that target local government authority. she said. Donut-hole annexations, eminent domain and building inspections are actions that towns have always had control over, but are now threatened by legislation.

“There’s just a lot of activity at the state level that’s taking away control at the local level,” Luther said.

Proposed changes would mean a loss of revenue to local governments. It seems the General Assembly is trying to balance the budget on the backs of municipalities, Luther said.

Bills introduced this session propose changes like eliminating beer and wine taxes and utility franchise fees, Indian Trail Town Manager Joe Fivas said. If passed, they would have a “huge effect” on the state’s towns.

“The impact to our budget would be about $1.5 million...That would be about 5 cents to our local government,” he said.

Legislators have a different view of the bills.

“There aren’t any laws bestowing municipalities with these powers,” Rep. Craig Horn said. “They exercise them, but that’s because no one questions them on it.”

He supports local control, but the legal mechanics of a bill like HB150 is not as simple as favoring or opposing that power. Overlay zoning, which allows governments to impose

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additional restrictions in a zoned area, gives municipalities regulatory power over certain things. Historic districts, where cosmetic repair or improvements must fit certain regulations, are an example.

But the state never allowed towns authority over general zoning areas, Horn said. Thus, bills introduced this session that have upset local elected officials, are not taking away local powers.

Instead, the legislation aims to help residents, home builders and business owners by relaxing local regulations.

“I don’t deny a municipality the ability to protect its citizens, but when I see what some people go through when those powers are abused, I don’t think it’s fair to our residents,” Horn said. “These aren’t perfect bulls, but they’re a move by a large number of people to get off the backs of those building buildings, providing jobs and helping our economy to recover.”

Local officials make a good argument for keeping local control, but municipalities cannot claim powers that the state does not give them, Horn said. But perhaps the right type of legislation outlining local authority would receive support in Raleigh.

“What they need is for the North Carolina League of Municipalities to find someone to draft a bill giving them that authority,” he said.

The North Carolina Constitution authorizes the NCGA to “provide for the organization and government of local governments and the fixing of boundaries of counties, cities and towns, and other governmental subdivisions, and, except as otherwise prohibited by this Constitution, may give such powers and duties to counties, cities and towns, and other governmental subdivisions as it may deem advisable.”

The state constitution also lists the types of legislation the NCGA cannot enact. They include changing town or county names, health policies or nuisance abatement, authority over roads and highways, juror pay, changing municipal limit lines, regulating trade or manufacturing, informal wills and deeds, granting divorces and a few other subjects. Legislators can enact general laws about these topics, but any specific law violating rules set out by the section are void.

Rep. Dean Arp introduced a bill to end local building inspections beyond the number required by the state building code. The bill was not intended as an attack on local control, but rather a uniform inspections requirement across the state.

While he supports some of the bills that define local authority, Arp said he is not opposed to giving the right power to city and county governments. In fact, he hopes to introduce a bill to study the best way to divide responsibilities between the state and local governments.

“I’m in support of the resolutions for local government authority, but what we need to do determine is what powers local government needs in order to have the most practical authority at the lowest levels,” Arp said.

But some local government officials and advocates argue this legislature is targeting municipalities more than usual. The N.C. Center for Public Policy Research notes that the NCGA is examining bills to give county commissions authority over decisions made by local school boards in the past, ending business franchise taxes, taking over Charlotte’s airport and Ashville’s water system and other moves that irk local officials.

“For starters, it strips a lot of our authority,” Indian Trail Councilman Chris King said. “We’re closer to our residents than the state is, so it makes no sense for the state to come in and mandate what we can and can’t do in our own communities.”

Local leaders are elected from among people in the community. It makes more sense that someone living in that town would make a decision about how its government should be run instead of a large elected body made up of people living all over the state, he said.

“They’re taking our state in the wrong direction. It’s like they’re passing all the restrictions on people that they can,” King said.

Union County Board of Commissioners Chairman Jerry Simpson said he was unfamiliar with specific bills from this session. But through research on other topics, he found several court decisions that reaffirmed the state’s authority to give or take local powers as it sees fit.

But it does not mean Simpson favors a change.

“I’m a firm believer that the more local the control, the better.”