The Problem With Public Input

The current community input process often amplifies the voices of already powerful groups who act to stop valuable projects for their own benefit.

2 minute read

April 28, 2022, 5:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction


Crowd Community Meeting

VladKol / Shutterstock

The planning process puts a strong emphasis on public input, with many types of projects subject to mandatory public meetings. Jerusalem Demsas argues that this process—which he calls “whoever yells the loudest and longest wins”—is, in fact, harmful.

To put a fine point on it: Deference to community input is a big part of why the U.S. is suffering from a nearly 3.8-million-home shortage and has failed to build sufficient mass transit, and why renewable energy is lacking in even the most progressive states.

Demsas acknowledges that “Democracy is at its best when the views and needs of the people are accurately transmitted to their representatives, the representatives act, and voters express their approval or disapproval in the next election.” But the current process “is fundamentally flawed: It’s biased toward the status quo and privileges a small group of residents who for reasons that range from the sympathetic to the selfish don’t want to allow projects that are broadly useful.”

Demsas outlines how small groups of opponents can derail transit projects, slow the production of housing, block renewable energy projects, and otherwise stymie projects with broad social benefits. “Not only do community groups block explicitly green developments; they have weaponized environmental regulations in their quest to do so.” Laws such as the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and its federal counterpart, NEPA, are frequent players in lawsuits to stop housing and transportation projects. “Although well intentioned, these rules have provided a means for disgruntled locals to pile on delays to projects they don’t like, whether or not they have a legitimate environmental complaint. As the economist Eli Dourado has noted, environmental-impact statements used to be pretty short—some just 10 pages.” Now, they average 1,600 pages in length.

For Demsas, the public process doesn’t “change the distribution of power” to empower underserved communities. “Expanding opportunities for political participation failed to solve the problem of inequitable project distribution, because the fundamental problem wasn’t lack of community input; it was a lack of political power among disadvantaged groups.”

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