N.C. House brings back bill barring towns from ruling on housing looks

kjahner@newsobserver.comMarch 21, 2014 

— A General Assembly subcommittee approved Thursday the revival of a bill opposed by many towns that would prevent municipalities from regulating virtually any aesthetic or design elements of one- and two-family housing units.

The League of Municipalities and Garner officials oppose House Bill 150, which passed the House last spring but didn’t make it to a vote in the Senate. The North Carolina Home Builders Association has also actively promoted the bill.

Both sides agree that the issue is part of a broader conflict and that government is overstepping. They just disagree over which government.

Legislators say municipalities have gone too far restricting what property owners build. Towns say it’s the state squelching town efforts to protect local property value, appeal and character with a clumsy heavy-handed ban.

“We have a statewide bill that would nuke everybody rather than letting local communities decide what they value,” said Paul Meyer, the League of Municipalities’ director of governmental affairs. “If a local resident doesn’t like what the town is doing, they have the ability to throw those guys and girls out of office.”

Rep. Nelson Dollar (R-Cary) sponsored the House version and touted its wide bipartisan support in the Assembly.

“It’s very common sense bill,” Dollar said. “This legislation is designed to correct certain abuses we’ve seen. I think it’s very clear that the municipalities have been overstepping their bounds.”

The bill, titled Zoning/Design & Aesthetic Controls, prohibits the application of “any zoning and development regulation ordinance relating to building design elements” for houses and duplexes. Exceptions are made for designated historic areas and landmarks, safety concerns and manufactured homes.

“Building design elements” include, according to the bill, exterior color, building materials and roofing styling. Porches, architectural ornamentation, and location of windows, doors and garage doors are also included.

The law does not prevent regulation of height or size of a home nor its location on a lot, such as buffer requirements. The law also does not restrict private covenants such as homeowners association agreements.

Broader issue

Towns cite this bill and others as examples of the state attempting to limit towns’ abilities to manage their own affairs; the topic came up last Wednesday during a meeting between Garner leaders and a group of developers, engineers and real estate specialists that aims to work more in concert with local government.

“The legislature is moving in the wrong direction,” Garner Councilman Ken Marshburn said at the meeting, later adding: “I’m a little biased, but I have a lot of confidence in elected officials at the local level to determine what’s reasonable as a regulation to put in place.”

Another bill introduced last session would have banned towns from charging utility companies privilege license taxes, a significant source of revenue. The legislature also considered a constitutional amendment that would increase the requirement for annexation to a 2/3 vote from a majority and eliminate all extraterritorial jurisdiction (municipalities have long exercised oversight of building code, zoning and other development and safety issues in areas near town limits).

Knightdale’s mayor Russell Killen said the state is taking tools away from the town. He said if a few towns overreach, the state should deal with specific situations rather than handcuff towns altogether.

Killen said for example that laws like the privilege tax restriction wouldn’t save taxpayers a dime, but would instead reduce municipal options.

“That’s not saving money, that’s shifting it. It’s not like I can fire policemen and firefighters. It’s not like Knightdale is awash with money,” Killen said, adding that property taxes would go up instead.

Killen also said businesses like stability and predictability of having a town able to exercise authority over development. A builder, for example, wouldn’t be happy if he built a neighborhood of high-end homes if another developer could put in low-rent townhouses a year later with no one able to stop it. And if the builder doesn’t trust the town or like its proposed growth plan, it will vote with its feet and build elsewhere instead, he said.

He also said neighborhood character is an important element of charm and property value and, he said the historic neighborhood exception doesn’t protect many areas.

Dollar doesn’t buy the rebuttals. Since the bill doesn’t apply to covenants, he said concerns about neighborhood character are “one of the red herrings the League tends to throw up.” He pointed to Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane’s testimony during a 2013 committee hearing, in which she explained ordinances on the number and locations of bathrooms in the house. McFarlane said those ordinances stem from localized requests to prevent rooming houses from sprouting up in single-family neighborhoods.

“Homeowners across the state are going to be protected from planners who are wanting to determine the size of their bedrooms and how many bathrooms they have,” Dollar said.

The Home Builders Association did not return request for comment.

But Killen argued that state laws that limit local flexibility would harm more than help.

“It just seems like when you look at the state, what’s right for Knightdale might not be right for New Bern,” Killen said.

Jahner: 919-829-4822; Twitter: @garnercleveland

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