Maine may become the third state to adopt state-level, single-family zoning legislation intended to preempt local autonomy.
Maine’s state legislature is taking up legislation aiming to preempt local zoning processes, responding to concerns about housing prices.
Maine is embracing new California-style laws aimed at reducing restrictions on new housing. It could soon run into some of the same problems encountered by the Golden State’s reforms.
Last week, the Maine House of Representatives passed L.D. 2003. The legislation legalizes “missing middle” housing options such as accessory dwelling units and duplexes, gives state officials the power to set housing production goals, and requires local laws to “affirmatively further” those goals.
The bill now heads to the Maine Senate, where it has already been approved once before.
Long before pocketbooks were squeezed by inflation and constrained supply chains, the cost of housing pushed many families to start pinching pennies. This phenomenon has only been exacerbated by a COVID-19 recovery that pushes more goods out of reach and makes dollars stretch slightly less than before. Much like the highly publicized cost of gasoline, the cost of housing has been rising exponentially in recent times. A January 2022 article from the Washington Post showed the average rent in Baltimore rose 11% to just over $2,018, and in neighboring Washington DC, rents rose 12% for an average of $2,538. Rents are not the only type of housing becoming more expensive; one need not look too far to find an abundance of stories detailing the spike in home prices.
From Maryland to Montana, housing costs are on the rise. While there are many contributing factors to this increase, many point to local government policy as one of the biggest contributing factors. Regulations related to zoning, density, parking, environment, etc. all play a role in the cost to build housing. Several state governments have considered legislation that preempts local zoning, often seen as a quick fix to a complicated and expensive issue. Only California and Oregon have ventured to adopt such preemption legislation, but soon Maine may join their ranks. At various times, Maryland has considered similar legislation, most recently with SB871/HB1259. But state-level policy comes with its own set of challenges that may worsen the situation.
Local governments are creatures of the states. The federal constitution is silent on the question of local governance below the state level. But almost universally, zoning questions have been left up to local authorities. This delegation of power is not by mandate but simply by common sense. Unlike other levels of government, local officials are uniquely situated to make better decisions that impact their piece of the map. Local officials are closest to the people they represent and largely live in the communities impacted by their decisions.
Furthermore, just throwing caution to the wind and allowing for higher levels of density will bring a cascade of other problems. When communities are built, they are designed with infrastructure meant to handle certain population loads. If a state decides to intervene without either: a) taking into consideration the impacts on local infrastructure, or b) providing additional funds to expand the capacity of that infrastructure, then any policy is doomed to fail. Sewer pipes can only handle so much waste; streets have only so many parking spots; and schools can only hold so many students.
What About Maryland?
As previously mentioned above, Maryland has considered similar policy solutions in the past. While the debating has been ongoing in Annapolis, county leaders have already taken action to address big questions around development and housing affordability. Maryland’s unique federated county model allows for a diversity of policy solutions to a common but complex problem; for example nearly all counties offer some type of Accessory Dwelling Unit (or ADU). Local governments are on the front lines of housing affordability, and local governments are the key to finding the solution.