Those of us who advise business clients, including real estate development clients, about state and local regulatory matters are pretty comfortable working under the long-standing division of authority between cities and state or federal regulators. We understand, for example, that local units of government are creatures of the state legislature, with powers limited to the specific grant of authority by the legislature (subject to some additional authority for charter cities). We accept that cities get to establish local zoning and development regulations governing development and construction activities, based on express authority conferred under state or federal law or regulations. There has been a long-standing tension, however, between state and local governments about what a given city is expressly or impliedly authorized to do under a city’s so-called police powers, absent a clear preemption.

In some areas of regulation, like environmental protection, we rely on policies that are established at the state or federal level to ensure some level of uniformity and consistency. In recent years we have seen cities go in a whole new direction by enacting policies pertaining to areas historically reserved to state or even federal agencies. Refer to municipal actions regarding climate change, minimum wage and mandatory employee benefits as recent examples. Why should the real estate development community care about this trend?

Our clients who are considering whether to invest in a particular city, such as Minneapolis or St. Paul, now not only need to be concerned with whether their project complies with local development regulations, but also whether their very business operations are uniquely regulated. They may be very concerned that such cities have taken it upon themselves to regulate aspects of their business in a way they have not experienced before. Many cities are pursuing expanded policies in response to social activism within their community or because of perceived inaction by state or federal officials. However, this trend may cause companies to invest their capital elsewhere to avoid the added burdens and cost of one-off local regulations that can be avoided simply by crossing the boundary line to another jurisdiction.

For example, elected officials in Minneapolis have for several years been pushing to enact a substantially higher minimum wage than what is required under state or federal law, applicable to employers doing business in their city. For those employers who hire affected employees, the associated labor costs will be a new factor for them when deciding whether to site a new coffee shop or fast-casual restaurant in Minneapolis or in an adjacent city without such policies.

Another example relates to climate change and the adoption by cities of sustainability policies. Historically, matters pertaining to environmental protection have centered on state and federal regulation. We understand that cities have authority to regulate stormwater discharge or wetland infiltration, but those policies emanate from state or federal law. Developers and their clients need to consider carefully what a given city may require of them to manage perceived adverse impacts of new or existing development. For some, this is not a concern as their employees or customers are already demanding more aggressive practices in this area. But not very many companies know how to confirm their “carbon footprint” let alone how to manage it or reduce it. For small manufacturers doing business in such cities, it might be the red flag that tells them it’s time to move on.

Given the trend in expanded municipal activism, one has to wonder what are the practical limits to new local government policymaking? If the state environmental regulators have a rule that specifies what is required for environmental review and compliance can a city up the ante and enact its own policies for environmental review, including by establishing more aggressive requirements for environmental impact statements? One clear advantage of having such matters addressed at a higher level is to avoid inconsistent approaches within a state or region that may otherwise lead to confusion and mistakes. We are already seeing this play out as various business organizations have found it necessary to challenge local government actions in court. Thus far the results of such challenges have been mixed. Efforts to preempt local government authority on a broad range of topics have not made much progress – at least not yet.

We have entered a new age of democracy, aided in large measure by the internet, in which one person’s pique can be the basis for forming a coalition and organizing behind a cause, electing local candidates to office and proceeding forthwith to enact new regulations. This is playing out before our eyes in Minneapolis and in other cities in Minnesota and elsewhere. Absent a clear indication of federal or state preemption in any given area, it would appear the tracks are laid down and the train is moving. Unfortunately we don’t yet know the train’s destination or the cost of the ticket.