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State versus local government power to regulate environmental problems in NC

April 13, 2016
Barnacles on pier
Pier on Whidbey Island by CochranCJ

In late March 2016, North Carolina took front stage in national political news. The legislature convened  for a one-day special session to pass a bill preventing local governments from enacting anti-discrimination ordinances. Some of the news coverage, national and state, addressed the general issue of the legislature’s stripping power away from local governments in other areas, notably local government structure, taxing authority and infrastructure ownership.

Over the past five years, the North Carolina legislature has also stripped the state’s local governments of many of their powers to regulate environmental threats. This trend has not been widely reported. In this entry I will catalog some of the recent changes in local government’s environmental regulatory powers–all of them reductions in such powers.

These changes also should be viewed in a longer historical context, however. There has been dynamic ebb and flow between local governments, the State, and the federal government in power to regulate the environment ever since the passage in the 1970s and 1980s of the nation’s major federal environmental statutes. This entry will also go back to the start of the State of North Carolina and describe what I see as five major periods with different arrangements of local versus State environmental regulatory power:

  1. A Preindustrial era of purely local control (1700s to 1900)
  2. Early industrial era of State floors with local flexibility (1900 to 1970)
  3. Late industrial era of federal mandates with potential State flexibility, limited in NC by the legislature (1970 to 1990)
  4. Postindustrial era of federal and State “devolution” of power, yielding many localized or “place-based regulations” (1990s to 2010)
  5. Great Recession and post-recession era clampdown on agency and local environmental discretion (2011 to present)

An important feature of all this ebb and flow is that new eras never completely wiped out the programs and laws created in early eras. The power swished around like water beneath coastal piers, but the old programs often remained, like barnacles, some alive and others just crusty hulks of their former living selves.  I will start with the recent era and work backwards in time. Some of the most interesting legal problems are presented by the persistence of those earliest barnacles.

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Rules of Rulemaking: the Canard of Consistency

January 20, 2016
Canard: 1. a groundless rumor or belief. 2. (French) ‘duck,’ from Old French caner ‘to quack

In earlier posts, I have discussed two canards about rulemaking in North Carolina

I will finish this series on some core beliefs about rulemaking with an environmentally-centered, critical look at this final canard:

  • Rulemaking processes should be consistent from authorization to judicial review

Frankly, no one who practices or follows environmental law in this State could take seriously the claim that the legislature cares much about consistency in administrative law processes, such as rulemaking. What do they care about, and how should judges review their grants of authority, if not by seeking consistency, a long and hallowed hallmark of legal fairness?

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Local government and the environment: preemption

March 16, 2015

What kinds of laws can a unit of local government in North Carolina–a city, a county, or a special purpose unit such as a soil and water conservation district–pass to adjust the balance between environmental protection and economic production? The answer to this general question starts with a search for authority given to the unit of government by the state legislature. There is also the open question of whether the N.C. Constitution itself grants some such authority.

Assuming there is a source of local power to act, the next question is whether State or federal government has already acted in a way that prevents the local unit from changing the law. This is the question of preemption, in legalese. My colleagues who focus on general local government law have ably discussed the way preemption questions are analyzed legally.  But environmental problems have contributed more than their share of major cases on preemption. And environmental problems seem destined to continue raising hard questions about the relative power of local versus state and federal governments, as political power ebbs and flows in Raleigh.

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Local government and the environment: the Constitutional starting point

March 2, 2015

Environmental law and constitutional law have shaped each other in profound ways.

This is not surprising, given environmental law’s intimate connection with the regulation of private property rights. It not surprising for another reason: a major part of environmental law, especially public environmental law, can be thought of as a species of administrative law. As such, environmental law problems often directly touch and concern fundamental issues such as the structure of government, the respective powers and duties of the major branches of government, and the powers and limits on governmental agencies.

In North Carolina, there is an even more direct connection: the state Constitution itself provides support for environmental protection, as a result of an amendment that passed overwhelmingly in 1972.  But the exact scope and meaning of the N.C. Constitution’s statement of environmental rights remains unclear, over forty years after it was passed as a constitutional amendment.

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