Columns » Exile on Jones Street

Unlike Oz, the Legislature is all-powerful


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"Well, why'd you do it?" I asked. Tony Rand, then the all-powerful head of the Senate Rules Committee and at one time known as this state's Shadow Governor because of his influence, paused­—and I swear this is true—he got kind of misty-eyed.

This was in July 2001 and we were discussing Rand's attempt earlier in the year to remove the Town of Chapel Hill's planning and zoning authority from property owned by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which is, as you might imagine, a sizable chunk of the town. The thought of just one kid from his district not getting into Carolina due to the town's refusal to let it expand, he explained, had greatly upset him. It was Rand's less-than-subtle way of reminding Chapel Hill, which was balking at a massive UNC building plan, who was boss.

A fervent backer of Carolina, he had slipped the provision into the omnibus state budget bill as it was readied for floor action. When word of it hit the streets, it caused a firestorm, especially for then Sen. Howard Lee, a member of the Senate leadership who represented Orange County. Lee and a few peeved lobbyists for the state's cities and towns managed to persuade Rand to back down, but his message was a powerful reminder of who has ultimate say in this state.

The simple lesson from that episode was don't piss off the chair of the Senate Rules Committee. The more nuanced lesson was that in this state, the Legislature creates not just the game and the rules, but the players themselves.

When you try to make sense of the actions of the current office holders on Jones Street, remember that every official entity in this state, including counties, cities, towns, state universities, school districts and so on, were chartered by the General Assembly. As our legislative leadership continues to reshape state government, so too can it reshape what it created.

In a hearing last week, Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake, employed a well-worn phrase to explain to the mayors of Morrisville, Raleigh and several other towns that the Legislature had the right to strip municipalities' authority to set design standards. After hearing their concerns, Dollar reminded them that their towns are "creatures of the state," which always sounds more legal and polite than "we'll do what we please," but means essentially the same thing.

The design bill is just one in a series of statewide measures that would alter the scope and powers of municipalities. Others are aimed at building codes, zoning, inspection authority and even the right of a city to adopt policies on greenhouse gases.

Many of these changes are the result of the majority's anti-regulatory and pro-property rights philosophy. But some of the efforts, like other recent moves to roll back annexations, are less driven by philosophy than parochial squabbles. This session, two cities in particular, Charlotte and Asheville, are seeing local controversies settled by the General Assembly's omniscience.

Last week, after lengthy debate, the Senate took away Charlotte's airport from the city, just as it did last year to Asheville, and set it up under an independent authority.

Meanwhile, revisions to Asheville's powers, driven by Rep. Tim Moffitt of nipple bill fame, continue with the likelihood that later this session the state will grab the city's water and sewer system and create a merged system with surrounding counties.

Last week, Moffitt, who chairs the House Regulatory Reform Committee, moved legislation to remove Asheville's extraterritorial jurisdiction (ETJ). ETJs allow municipalities to regulate development in adjacent areas. In debate last week in the House Government Committee over the bill, which also prevents the town from annexing for 12 years, Moffitt said he was doing so because he was "sensitive to the plight" of residents who are regulated by cities but can't vote for their leaders.

The bill sets the stage to remove ETJs from every municipality in the state. Durham Democrat Paul Luebke said ETJs have worked well in his city to maintain consistency in growth. "The reason you have ETJ is to make some sense in the way you have development in your area," he said.

Luebke and Asheville Democratic Rep. Susan Fisher warned that the legislation would embolden other lawmakers with an axe to grind. Fisher said what is happening to Asheville should serve as a warning to others.

"If this can happen in Asheville and Buncombe, it can happen to any city and county in the state," she said.

Unlike Rand, whose action in 2001 led to more than a decade of deep mistrust between UNC and its host community, GOP leaders have offered no misty-eyed rational for their efforts to rewrite local rules and remove airports, zoning authority and other powers from cities, counties and towns.

But like Rand, their efforts to right a perceived wrong have focused on exacting punishments rather than finding remedies.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Look behind the curtain."


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