Monday, July 14, 2008

Could TOD be Limited by the World Trade Organization?

It's possible if this column in Planetizen is true:

The proposed WTO restrictions will apply to “measures relating to” licensing and qualification requirements and procedures and technical standards. Therefore, not only are the actual requirements and standards covered but as well any government measure related to requirements and standards. Thus, Council decisions around the issuance of contracts, the licensing of businesses (in general, as well as specific licenses for taxi’s, food vendors, and other specialized services) and more is at stake. But more dramatic still is the possibility that licensing could also include all aspects of the development process. The US delegation has expressed concern that such a broad definition of licenses could cover “permits related to construction [and] the operation or use of facilities…

The development of standards and guidelines are the hallmark of much innovative municipal policy. Yet under the proposed disciplines, the notion of standard is so broad as to include everything from zoning bylaws (a form of land-use standard relating to the permitted uses and characteristics of development on a given site), sustainable and “green” building standards, design guidelines and more.

As an antidote to the current level of open-endedness, GATS negotiators could work to protect municipal regulatory authority to limit the definitions of what the disciplines cover. So far, this hasn’t happened. Another way could be to make an exception for zoning and hours of operation regulations, as one GATS proponent has recommended. Again, this sort of amendment has yet to appear.

It seems to me that the world trade organization shouldn't have jurisdiction over local planning processes such as design standards, zoning, or building regulation. However if what these folks say is true, a large corporation could challenge any building restrictions and regulations. This means that if a a Wal Mart wanted to move into a light rail station area and challenged the regulations that go along with it, they might get away with their usual junk.

It might also mean the end to local only store preference in places like San Francisco that keep out chains:
Municipal regulations or procedures that “discriminate” against foreign companies by either directly or indirectly favouring local business (e.g. through a local procurement, or economic development policy) can already be challenged under the GATS. Now, however, the proposed disciplines would create grounds for challenge to the much broader category of “non-discriminatory” regulations, which includes the majority of the tools of city government. Non-discriminatory regulations include things like zoning and building-related bylaws, sewage bylaws, health bylaws and regulations that set development charges. For municipalities, this will be the first time that their most elementary forms of regulations and procedures could be disciplined in an enforceable way by an international institution.
Kind of scary that they would have this kind of power and regulatory authority over local government.


arcady said...

I see this the other way: it prevents municipalities from giving tax breaks to attract things like Wal-Marts. Maybe it'll even stop cities from imposing parking requirements, which could meant that there will finally be a supermarket in the center of San Francisco. Most of the "innovative policy" of zoning laws has been working hard to produce the sprawl we all know and hate.

Pantograph Trolleypole said...

I thought about that as well. It seems to me that it cuts both ways though. With the good comes some bad as well. I'd have to see further analysis though of what would happen for sure. I thought folks might be interested in this development.

Anonymous said...

Given that to bring a claim under the WTO, you need to get a country to sue on your behalf, how many potential litigants do you think this will create? Are there that many foreign chains that could get their home countries to sue America to get a store opened in a San Francisco neighborhood?

Winston said...

The Planetizen article is confused. The purpose of the Working Party on Domestic Regulation is to ease trade in services (think call centers, computer programming etc.) by standardizing licensing requirements. The intent of the regulation in question is to prevent countries from setting up unreasonable licensing requirements that protect their domestic service firms. The U.S. delegation is claiming that the regulation, as it is currently worded is overly broad and could affect things (like zoning) that it was never intended to affect.

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