HB 150 Would Limit Local Government in Setting Design Standards for Residential Housing

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In what they described as a “dire emergency,” a group of Wake County mayors held a press conference  to warn communities of a proposed bill that would limit local governments’ ability to set design standards for residential housing., reports the News & Observer. 

The N.C. House is expected to vote today on House Bill 150, which prohibits towns from withholding building permits based on a builder’s proposed building materials, architectural design or exterior color, among other design elements. Rep. Nelson Dollar, a Cary Republican and primary sponsor of the bill, says he introduced it to spur residential development in areas where some local governments have “overstepped their bounds” and dictated the local market.

But most of Wake’s mayors argued Monday that such standards are key to protecting property values and molding aesthetically pleasing communities. They said citizens – not the government – lead the formation of housing standards through local committees. “This bill … takes away the power of citizens to have input with their local officials to really say what they want their community to look like,” Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane said.

The bill would not affect private covenants or other contractual agreements, including those adopted by homeowners associations. But neighborhoods relying on an overlay district for design consistency would lose their protection. For example, three of Raleigh’s older neighborhoods – Cameron Park, South Park and North Boylan – require that all main home entrances face the street, or at least the same direction as the rest of the block, under the Neighborhood Conservation Overlay district.

Those rules, established by homeowners’ request, aren’t allowed under the legislation, Raleigh Planning Director Mitchell Silver said. “Years of planning, gone,” Silver said. Silver is also worried about language in the bill that prohibits regulations on the “interior layout of rooms.” That might affect Raleigh’s ability to, for example, ban builders from including two kitchens – a design feature that could create a multifamily rental or boarding house. Silver said his staff is researching the issue.  “That’s the part that we just don’t know,” he said.

Cary has identified at least two rules that could be affected by the bill, said Lana Hygh, an assistant to Town Manager Ben Shivar and Cary’s liaison with the state legislature. The bill could nullify the town’s “garagescape” ordinance, which says that a garage can’t be closer to the street than the house. It also could nullify Cary’s “anti-monotony” ordinance, which requires variety across a neighborhood’s houses. Hygh said it’s unclear whether the Cary Town Council could circumvent the new bill by barring developments that violate the town’s aesthetics. “Zoning conditions are supposed to be offered, not demanded,” Hygh said. “We’ll have to look at how that all would work.”

The mayors at Monday’s event also said housing standards played a role in attracting growth – not turning it away, as supporters of the bill have suggested. “You’re going to hear from the legislature that this is a jobs bill. Good luck doing better than 47 percent,” said Knightdale Mayor Russell Killen, referring to the increase in residential housing permits Knightdale granted between 2011 and 2012. Knightdale passed a unified development ordinance in 2005 to promote more middle- to upper-end homes because the town had an abundance of starter homes. Since then, Knightdale’s population has grown from about 7,300 to 12,600.

Other local towns have seen similar growth under similar residential housing guidelines. Wake County grew 5 percent between the 2010 census and last July. Bernard Helm, a housing market analyst with Market Opportunity Research Enterprises, a Rocky Mount company that analyzes residential real estate trends, disputes the mayors’ claim. Helm said the residential housing industry would get a boost from a lack of restrictions. “Less-restrictive communities get more growth,” Helm said. “It makes it easier for builder to reach a market for his product.”

The state’s Home Builders Association has been seeking legislation to limit local governments ability to set design standards for several years. A similar bill was introduced in the Senate in 2009 and 2011 but failed to become law. Lisa Martin of the N.C. Home Builders Association says local government should only regulate the safety measures included in residential housing units. “We believe (building design) should be up to the consumers,” Martin said. Like residents, builders “have a skin in the game.”

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