The Magazine

LEVIATHAN IN THE SUBURBS

Dec 18, 1995, Vol. 1, No. 14 • By CLINT BOLICK
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A new buzzword dominates the Washington political lexicon these days: devolution. It offers a one-size-fits-all solution to vexing issues ranging from welfare to health care to education: Pack it up and ship it to the states and localities.


Republicans who have caught devolution fever ought to pause long enough to cast a southward glance across the Potomac to the city of Alexandria, Virginia. There they will find that despite their best intentions big government is not disappearing; it's merely moving to the suburbs.


In many respects, Alexandria represents the ideal of a modern suburb. Located only a silver dollar's throw from Washington, the 16-square-mile city is tidy and prosperous. Its 116,000 residents are ethnically diverse -- 64 percent white, 22 percent black, 10 percent Hispanic, 4 percent Asian -- and boast a per capita income of over $ 34,000, nearly twice the national aver- age. The median home value is $ 228,000. The historic Old Town section, where I live, is one of the area's most picturesque neighborhoods and a popular tourist destination.


"If you're looking for a people's republic, you won't find it here," Assistant City Manager Tom Brannan assured me. True, Alexandria isn't one of those screeching left-wing cities like Berkeley or Santa Monica that enact their own foreign policies and gouge landlords with confiscatory rent control. As cities go, this one is relatively well managed, one of only 15 nationwide to boast AAA bond ratings from both of Wall Street's major credit agencies.


And yet the city is a "liberal fiefdom," charges columnist and Alexandria resident Cal Thomas, "one of the last bastions of liberalism in government." The city's government is bloated, expensive, intrusive, involved in far too many functions -- and in all this, typical of local governments across America.


The premise underlying devolution -- calling to mind nostalgic memories of small-town democracy -- is that local government is closer to the people, more responsive, and less intrusive. But the premise is a myth, and perhaps it was ever so. Even a century and a half ago, Alexis de Tocqueville commented on the "exasperating interference in a multitude of minute details" in which local governments engage, wherein "tastes as well as actions are to be regulated."


Tocqueville couldn't have known it then, but he was presciently depicting the Alexandria Board of Architectural Review, whose exasperating interference in matters of personal taste is the stuff of local legend. The board has jurisdiction over all new construction and exterior renovations lhat are visible to the public in the historic district, no matter how trivial. One current controversy pits a homeowner who wants to replace a wrought-iron gate with a wooden one against activists from the Old Town Civic Association who complain they no longer will be able to peer into his front yard.


The process to secure from the Board of Architectural Review a "Certificate of Appropriateness" is tedious and oppressive. An application must be filed along with a $ 30 fee, which triggers a public hearing. The property owner mut notify neighbors of their right to object, and notice of the public hearing is posted on the property and in local newspapers. All applications are referred to the city archaeologist, the Department of Transportation and Environmental Services, Code Enforcemont, the Zoning Department, and the Offce of Historic Alexandria for conformance to their regulations.


Following the public hearing, the board may approve or deny the application or defer it for restudy. The board's discretion is bounded only by the city council, which has the power to review denials. (Civicminded Alexandrians get to watch these festivities on the local cable channel.) The reward for most property owners who manage to secure a Certificate of Appropriateness is the chance to start yet another administrative process, this time l;or a building permit.


All this recently proved too much for a young Old Town couple who had the temerity to build a gazebo and hot tub in their backyard without obtaining permission. An alert local bureaucrat happened to notice the structure from the street and reported it to the city, which commenced proceedings against the couple. Forced to hire a lawyer and endure endless hearings, the couple ultimately was ordered to take the gazebo down. Eventually the city acknowledged it had made an error and decided to permit the gazebo, but only after the couple had sold the house and fled to Fairfax County. Former neighbor John McCaslin recalls, "They couldn't wait to get the hell out of there."