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Advocacy Angle: It's about fists and noses 

by: Scott Mooneyham, NCLM Advocacy Communications Strategist

As the League moves closer to its Advocacy Goals Conference scheduled for Dec. 11 in Raleigh, municipalities will again be considering goals to pursue in the upcoming legislative biennium. Several of the goals likely will venture onto some well-worn ground of recent years, dealing with where state authority should end and local government authority begin. One legislative goal from the previous biennium took the issue head-on by seeking an amendment to the North Carolina Constitution to establish home rule, allowing municipalities to enjoy their own grants of authority separate from the state. A nearly identical goal is up for consideration this year.As League Executive Director Paul Meyer has made clear in comments to the media and League members, this tension within the Legislative Building regarding where to draw the lines of authority between state and local government is nothing new. What has changed in the last few years is the number of pieces of legislation affecting those lines. Some have passed, and some have failed, always with the League working hard to try to protect municipal authority.

With another legislative session looming, that tension will certainly bubble to the surface again. At times, the renewed debate will take place in unpredictable ways or hit unpredictable areas. At other times, the areas subject to examination – land-use planning or municipal finance, for example – will be predictable enough.

As those debates have occurred in the past, they have sometimes played out before the public with few references to the basic principles that underpin the decisions by municipalities to exercise so much of their statutory authority. That quote so often misattributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes comes to mind: “The right to swing my fist ends at the other man’s nose.” (It was actually said by legal scholar Zachariah Chafee.) When property rights are involved, and not noses, an adjoining property owner can be bloodied even when the swinging ends at the property line. Zoning and other land-use rules and restrictions are designed to prevent that, to protect the property rights and property values of all the owners in an entire neighborhood or community, and not allow a single property owner to swing away.

As our world becomes more complex, and more people crowd into smaller spaces, the rules governing all types of lines tend to become more complex. Municipalities typically aim for those rules to keep some figurative fists from coming into contact with some figurative noses. It’s important to keep reminding those watching these conflicts, whether the media or the broader public, about that intent and about the basic principles behind the intent.