Professor Tries to Sell Conservatives on Local Environmental Rules

(CN) – At a time when the Trump administration is working to cut back federal environmental rules, a professor from the University of Houston Law Center says state and local governments should take on part of the regulatory role.

Speaking at a symposium at Vanderbilt University Law School in Nashville, Tenn., on Monday, Blake Hudson presented a paper arguing local land-use policies that draw zones around areas that should be protected have been underutilized and often overlooked by conservative policymakers.

“Geographic delineation policies might prohibit certain development densities on one side of a line but not the other and allow individuals to only cut trees up to X feet from a stream, require parties to leave X feet of buffer around agricultural land to protect water quality, or compel developers to integrate X acreage of open space into a commercial development,” according to Hudson’s paper, which was published in the Florida Law Review.

The result, Hudson said, is environmental policy that would be easier to enforce and could appeal more to conservatives.

Instead of the time and money spent on monitoring and testing that often goes into complying with federal environmental regulations, the law professor said local land-use policy “takes care of itself, almost.” A drone could check if trees have been cut down in a protected zone, for example.

Speaking to Courthouse News after the symposium, Hudson said local land-use policies that protect environmental features often support conservative ideals such as personal responsibility, the reduction of federal regulation and a return to local government.

“What I’m trying to do is to strip away some of the politics,” Hudson said, “and say, ‘Look, if you get rid of the political distortion here, actually, this approach is preferable from a conservative policymaker’s standpoint, from the alternative at least.’ The third alternative would be to do nothing.”

Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that in a year under the leadership of Administrator Scott Pruitt, it acted 22 times to pare down federal environmental regulations, saying the move could save more than $1 billion.

Hudson said conservatives are often concerned with the number of federal environmental regulations, which some say have ballooned to rival the tax code in their complexity.

Local governments, he added, want reduced federal regulation, but are often reluctant to step into the role of protecting their local environments because they want to promote growth.

“Federal reach is not going away,” Hudson said. “The only way it goes away [is] if you do better at the local level.”

As an example of poor local land use exacerbating an environmental disaster, Hudson pointed to Houston, Texas, which allowed development in low-lying areas flooded by Hurricane Harvey last summer.

In an op-ed for the Houston Chronicle, Hudson said pavement and other hard surfaces helped direct the deluge the city experienced in August over roads and into homes, instead of being soaked up by the land.

Monday’s Vanderbilt symposium was co-hosted by the school’s Environmental Law and Policy Annual Review, which produces an annual publication in collaboration with the Environmental Law Institute to “identify the year’s best legal and policy solutions to pressing environmental problems,” according to a university press release.

The event was also hosted by Vanderbilt’s Energy, Environment and Land Use Program and the Energy and Environment Law Society.

Speaking at the event, Bob Martineau, commissioner for the Tennessee Department of the Environment and Conservation, said many local governments already have delineation policies in place – like statutes that protect wetlands – but the question is how to expand the policies.

Furthermore, local governments could face political pressure to tweak or even eliminate the zoning statutes designed to protect environmental resources, Martineau said.

If a large plant wants to come in and promises thousands of new jobs, but requests a variance, “the zoning laws are stressed at the local level,” Martineau said. “So if you don’t have a federal backdrop of standards, then you risk those zonings.”

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