Learn and explore the fundamental concepts of urban planning.

What Is Local Control?

State preemption and local control are two of the most controversial and contested concepts in land use. Understanding when and where one or the other takes precedence is key to understanding the politics and governance of planning.

Public Hearing

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Local control is a term used to describe the legal powers of local governments (e.g., cities and counties) to create regulations. Zoning codes and other land use regulations are arguably the most conspicuous and universal forms of local control. Because zoning codes are the most widely used tool for the implementation of land use plans and development approvals, usually adopted after public engagement processes conducted at the neighborhood level, the field of planning is deeply involved in matters of local control.

Some jurisdictions provide additional control over land use and zoning decisions to organizations and individuals at a more local level than city governments. The city of Portland, for instance, pioneered a neighborhood involvement system widely emulated in other cities, but which has recently been subject to criticism for failing to represent the diversity of communities. A neighborhood involvement system in Minneapolis faced similar criticisms in recent years. In cities like New York City to Los Angeles, hyper-local planning commissions and neighborhood-level advisory bodies have varying degrees of discretionary and advisory powers. The power to litigate under the auspices of regulations, such as state and federal environmental laws and the Americans with Disabilities Act, is another form of local control.

Local control is frequently assessed in opposition to state preemption and federal preemption, which assign legal precedence to state and federal levels of governance, respectively. The legal powers of local governments relative to state and federal authorities are subject to frequent and ongoing litigation. Cities all over the country are negotiating with state and federal authorities to determine the amount of control local governments have to design, engineer, and enforce the safety of streets, for instance. Some states have prohibited local governments from implementing public safety tools like traffic cameras and lower speed limits, removing local control. The local government is forced to lobby higher levels of government to gain any new measures of local control. (For what it's worth, Canadian cities have the same experience.)

The controversies surrounding local control of traffic cameras serves as an example of the twisted political logic that emerges when special interests contest the boundaries of local control. Because state preemption and local control are viewed as either desirable or pernicious depending on their utility relative to specific issues, expressing an ideological preference for either fails to anticipate the potential for hypocrisy in the future.

Recommended additional reading: "City Rights in an Era of Preemption: A State-by-State Analysis," published by the National League of Cities in 2017." [pdf]