Resources for Attorneys

Community Benefits Agreements

Community Benefits Agreements (CBAs) are complex, multi-party contracts executed by several community-based organizations, one or more developers and, sometimes, a government entity. The agreements include commitments to provide a range of community benefits related to a proposed development project, and usually contain the community-based organizations' commitment to support approval of the project.

CBAs promote the core values of inclusiveness and accountability. CBAs promote inclusiveness by providing a mechanism to ensure that a broad range of community concerns are heard and addressed. They promote accountability by ensuring that promises made by developers, local government or other project proponents are made specific, legally binding and enforceable by the community.

Extensive information on CBAs is available on PowerSwitch Action's main website, including text of many existing CBAs.

The CBLC has assisted numerous community organizations in negotiating, drafting and implementing Community Benefits Agreements.

Improving the Development Process

The CBLC works with community-based organizations to make the land use approval processes, redevelopment activities and other development-related government processes more transparent, democratic and responsive to community needs.

The widespread interest in CBAs and CIRs demonstrates that in important ways, large-scale land use development processes are not meeting the needs of low-income communities. Material below focuses on ways to improve the development process, rather than substantive improvements like living wage requirements for new developments.

Community Impact Reports

Community Impact Reports are a tool to provide the public and elected officials with timely, pertinent information about both positive and negative impacts of development projects, prior to project approval. Extensive information about CIRs is available on PowerSwitch Action’s main website.

Crucial legal issues related to CIRs include:

  • Whether there is a private cause of action to enforce compliance with a CIR policy;
  • Whether the CIR is linked to another tool in the land use process, as several big-box ordinances link assessment of job quality issues with issuance of a conditional-use permit;
  • Whether the legal responsibility for releasing a CIR falls on the developer or the local government entity that is considering approval of the project; (we recommend the latter, as is the case with environmental impact reports);
  • Whether the CIR policy is purely informational, or whether it instead requires a public body to make a finding or determination based on the information in the CIR.
  • How the CIR is adopted. Options include: (i) a state, city, or county adopting an ordinance requiring CIRs for certain types of projects; (ii) a redevelopment authority or other local government entity passing by resolution a policy requiring CIRs for certain projects; and (iii) any entity simply choosing to prepare and release a CIR for a particular development project. The form in which a CIR policy is adopted will of course affect the enforceability of the policy, and the amount of flexibility the relevant government entity has to decide whether to release a CIR for a particular project.

Ordinances Requiring CBAs

While there has been interest in several cities in developing ordinances or processes to require CBAs, and both Detroit and New Jersey have done so, we believe these measures must be considered with caution. Formal attempts by local governments to structure or facilitate CBA negotiations generally lead to governmental efforts to control who can participate, and/or predetermine results of negotiations, which can undermine authentic community representation and community leverage. Because of these problems, we encourage local government officials who want to improve the inclusiveness and accountability of the development process to explore community impact reports and other measures that create information, space and leverage for community organizations to negotiate CBAs and/or work with community representatives to establish substantive policy governing projects, as discussed below.

Public Input into Choice of Developer

Advocates wanting to weigh in on a government entity’s selection of a developer for a large project are often surprised to find out how little information is made public prior to this important decision. When a government entity issues an RFP and/or RFQ for a large development project, it is usually selecting a developer with which to enter into an ENA.

The public may have strong opinions on this issue, in part because different developers have different reputations with regard to issues the community cares about. More importantly, though, in response to an RFP, different developers may be offering to build completely different projects. If an RFP does not request a specific type of project, one developer might propose to build a grocery store and other local-serving businesses, while another might propose building a server farm that offers no value to neighborhood residents. The public should certainly have the right to weigh in on decisions that will have such long-term ramifications for their communities.

However, a legal impediment often stands in the way of public awareness of development proposals at this crucial stage: developers generally assert that responses to RFPs contain "trade secrets" that insulate their responses from public records requests. Government entities routinely reiterate this assertion in denying requests for public release of RFP responses. While this approach is usually legally defensible (at least in California), and while sensitive information may in fact be included in a response to an RFP, denying the public the most basic information regarding what a developer proposes to build - and perhaps how much public subsidy the developer anticipates needing - is hard to defend.

An easy way out of this dilemma is for the RFP or RFQ to require the developer to put some simple, basic information about the proposed project into an executive summary that respondents are told will be made available to the public. This summary should describe the basics of the proposed development, the public investment the developer anticipates requesting, and perhaps information about the type and quality of jobs in the project.

Oakland’s redevelopment agency took this approach in the RFP for development of the West Oakland Army base. Providing this information publicly enables the public to weigh in on the crucial matter of selection of a developer with whom local government can work.

Responsible Development Standards

Community benefits agreements rightly have received much attention from advocates, foundations, and academia. However, CBAs are substantially limited as a long-term strategy for shaping economic development. CBAs are extremely resource intensive for all parties, given that each lengthy negotiation governs only a single development project. In addition, CBAs generally address issues that are presented by most large, urban multi-use projects in low-income areas: local hiring, job quality, environmental mitigations, levels of affordable housing, and so forth. Arguments presented by community advocates regarding the importance of these issues to their communities, and the need for government to subsidize only projects with positive impacts in these areas, apply similarly to many projects.

Rather than having all parties fight these battles on a project-by-project basis, a better approach is to have local governments establish a slate of community benefits policies governing all large urban development projects, at least when subsidies are being provided. Local hiring policies, job quality requirements, environmental mitigations, and provision of affordable housing should be standard conditions of approval (or at least of subsidy) of large, multi-use projects in low-income urban areas. Such policies could set baseline standards while providing flexibility for community organizations to go further to meet particular community needs, such as a grocery store, health clinic or park.

Policy language generally should provide for enforcement through private causes of action, letting intended beneficiaries of community benefits policies enforce those policies, in order to minimize the enforcement burden on local government.

PowerSwitch Action's main site has extensive information on the many types of responsible development policies that can provide community benefits on certain types of projects.

Land Use Planning & Social Economic Goals

Many community advocates have attempted to advance socioeconomic goals through the traditional land use system of zoning, permitting, and planning documents like general plans. Such attempts might include advocacy for a living wage requirement to be placed on certain types of developments, or enacted as part of an incentive zoning scheme; or advocacy for a general plan to include language encouraging retention of high-quality jobs in specified low-income areas.

Advocates for such policies are often told by elected officials, planners, and even city attorneys that it is not legal or appropriate to use the land use regulation system (zoning, etc.) to advance these "unusual" goals; the argument is that these well-established land use tools may be used only to advance traditional land use goals, such as controlling density, design, and environmental impacts.

This argument is often without basis in law, but it is nonetheless employed frequently, and has become something of a trope. In fact, as is briefly discussed here, local government’s power to regulate land use derives from, and is an expression of, the police power, under which local governments have a broad mandate to protect the health, morals, safety, and welfare of their citizens. Regulation of land use in ways that protect and advance the economic well-being of citizens is well within the police power. In fact, "economic development" in furtherance of business activity is a well-established, traditional goal of land use regulation, and there is no legal basis to distinguish this accepted purpose from efforts to protect the economic welfare of individuals and families through the same tools.

Regulatory vs. Proprietary Action

Public entities are involved in large development projects in many different ways. For attorneys, one important way to look at the types of public involvement is on a spectrum of activity from the purely proprietary to the purely regulatory. Where a government action falls on this spectrum has crucial implications with regard to many different laws.

On the purely proprietary end of the spectrum, there are publicly-owned, -constructed, and -operated projects, such as most airports and public office buildings. On the other end of the spectrum are purely private projects, receiving no public subsidy and requiring no new public infrastructure or other discretionary public investment.

(Note that even purely private projects often need permit approvals and decisions from local government that are purely discretionary on the part of the government: amendments to general or specific plans, zoning changes, variances, certain conditional use permits, etc. Very few projects of any size are by-right projects, meaning that the landowner’s project comports with all existing laws, and therefore that there is a legal right to construct it. Discretionary approvals such as those listed above are still based on the government’s regulatory power (or police power), rather than a proprietary action.)

Across the spectrum of government involvement with a development project from purely proprietary to purely regulatory, there are any number of ways the government can be involved. Local governments may subsidize private development through a direct monetary payment; they might sell or lease land to a private developer (perhaps after using the government’s eminent domain power to acquire that land); they might re-route public streets or construct expensive infrastructure that supports the development; and so forth. All of these actions are proprietary to one degree or another, and are purely discretionary on the part of the government entity involved.

The proprietary nature of these actions has important legal implications. Most importantly, in many cases it empowers the local government to attach community benefits conditions to the action, while avoiding an attack based on preemption by federal or state law. Preemption doctrines under the NLRA, ERISA, the Clean Air Act and the Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act (FAAAA) all have court-made exceptions for contexts in which the government is acting in a proprietary capacity. The federal constitutional doctrine associated with the dormant commerce clause also prohibits certain local actions, but similarly contains an exception for actions proprietary in nature. Some state laws preempting local authority on issues like wages and benefits or affordable housing contain exceptions for instances where the local government is acting pursuant to its contract, rather than regulatory authority.

While the particulars of these preemption doctrines vary, in general, local governments have broader leeway to advance policy when they are acting in a proprietary manner.

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