RALEIGH — A proposed state law would prohibit North Carolina cities and towns from using zoning laws to control the way houses look.
House Bill 150 — Zoning, Design, and Aesthetic Controls — is supposed to prevent city planners from dictating purely aesthetic elements of single-family homes and duplexes, such as paint color, building materials, and interior layout. It still leaves cities free to regulate aesthetic qualities of multiple-family housing units, manufactured homes, and homes in historic districts.
Supporters of the bill — including home builders, real estate agents, and advocates of affordable housing — say such mandates from local governments drive up the cost of housing and deprive consumers of a variety of home styles that suit their needs and preferences. Republican sponsors of the bill say it helps protect property rights.
Opponents — including urban mayors, city planners, and homeowners in high-end neighborhoods — say cities’ ability to impose design standards and aesthetic controls on home builders helps preserve the property values and character of existing communities, which they say might be damaged by new “ugly” or “low-quality” development nearby.
The bill passed the House in late March 98-18 but is stuck in the Senate Rules Committee.
The proposed law makes strange bedfellows, pitting Republican state lawmakers and liberal groups like the North Carolina Housing Coalition and Habitat for Humanity against liberal mayors who want to ensure that, in the words of Cary Mayor Harold Weinbrecht, new development is “consistent with the character” of established neighborhoods.
Shades of beige
“It’s mind-boggling to me that we’ve gotten to this point,” said bill sponsor Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake, at a committee hearing on the bill, noting that some city governments go so far as to dictate “what shade of beige is the cornice on your home.”
Lisa Martin, director of government affairs for the North Carolina Homebuilders Association, said builders do not mind so much when local governments regulate aesthetic features like height or orientation of homes.
“Where it starts getting out of the realm of their authority,” she said, “is when they start getting into things like cladding — whether a house has brick or some other kind of siding — architectural style, roof pitch, front porches, garage doors, ornamentation, windows, exterior color, interior layout and minimum square footage.”
Minimum square footage is “the real killer,” Martin said. It is “directly aimed at keeping affordable housing out.”
Martin, who is lobbying for the bill, says the state never has granted municipalities the authority to regulate aesthetics, and by doing so cities are violating private property rights.
One of the worse violators is Monroe, she said. It has 17 different residential overlay districts, each with different requirements, including minimum square footage, minimum garage size, and exterior material requirements. “All of that increases the price.”
In 2006, the Homebuilders Association attempted to prove Monroe was trying to keep “certain people” out of their jurisdiction, Martin said. The city even addressed immigration and the increase in Hispanic-owned businesses and residences in its land-use plan. “They couldn’t have been more blatant about it,” she said.
Martin said the use of building design controls as an attempt to keep out or eliminate entire socioeconomic classes of people is not uncommon.
“Knightdale is a prime example,” she said. “They had an ordinance that said you could not sell a house for less than X [dollars]. Their whole idea was you had to put things on the house that would make it more expensive. They wanted us to build more $300,000, $400,000, and half-million-dollar houses. The problem is the people who want those kind of houses don’t want to live in Knightdale.”
The town of Mint Hill, near Charlotte, requires that at least 50 percent of houses in various subdivisions be made entirely of brick.
“That’s fine if buyers want that,” Martin said. “But when you’re down to your last house, and you’ve already done 50 percent of the subdivision in something other than brick, then you’ve already eliminated people [who] say, ‘I can’t afford that,’ or, ‘I was interested in something with cedar shingles on it.’”
Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane spoke against the bill at a March 13 House committee meeting, arguing that the city needed to be able to control things like placement of bedrooms bathrooms and the number of kitchens in a home, to prevent rooming houses from sprouting up in single-family neighborhoods.
Martin said local governments love to tell builders how to build their homes, “but they’re not the ones trying to sell them.”
Joe Padilla, director of government affairs for the Charlotte arm of the N.C. Homebuilders Association, put it like this in a recent opinion piece for PlanCharlotte.org:
“The homebuilding industry spends millions each year researching buyer preferences so builders can design plans tailored to each local market and price point. This research most often shows that homebuyers, particularly those making their first purchase, are less concerned about whether their house is covered in brick or Hardiplank, and more concerned with whether they can afford their monthly mortgage payment.”
In an opposing commentary, Ben Hitchings, planning director for the town of Morrisville, said the bill would leave city governments powerless to protect older neighborhoods — those not “protected” by private restrictive covenants or homeowners associations — from “ugly infill,” or newer neighborhoods — which are “protected” by private covenants — from “low-quality” development that might locate nearby.
In response to the argument that aesthetic controls limit affordable housing, Hitchings said, “design standards build acceptance for affordable housing among existing residents, by ensuring that affordable units fit into the community, and in that way help these projects get approved.”
The bill quickly made its way through the state House, before drawing attention and opposition from the N.C. League of Municipalities and the Metropolitan Mayors Association. It passed the Senate Commerce Committee April 15 and was scheduled for a vote April 24 on the Senate floor. But just before debate began, Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, motioned to have the bill removed from the calendar and sent back to the Rules Committee, which he chairs.
Bill supporters were surprised by the move. “Maybe we got something wrong language-wise. Or maybe a municipality stepped in,” said Sen. Jeff Tarte, R-Mecklenburg, a sponsor of the Senate version of the bill.
Apodaca did not return an email or phone call requesting explanation of his action. Martin said her organization remains hopeful the bill will pass.
Sara Burrows is a contributor to Carolina Journal.