Ga. local governments cling to home rule as builders resist restrictions

An excavator clears the way for a new house Monday in Atlanta, where rules restrict how close your porch can encroach on the curb and if you can build a pool along a street. John McCosh/Georgia Recorder

The Home Builders Association of Georgia says people are being priced out of buying new homes through too-restrictive local regulations.

The association’s push to fend off attempts by some local governments to restrict  options for a home’s exterior color, type of roof and other design elements is set to resume in the General Assembly in 2020 after stalling out this year. A bipartisan group of influential lawmakers tried to deliver legislation favored by the state’s home builders, but ran into strong opposition from numerous Georgia cities and counties.

Home designs sometimes don’t meet local requirements purely due to aesthetic reasons, said Austin Hackney, government affairs director for the state’s Home Builders Association.

A common restriction imposed by a local government limits the amount of vinyl siding a new home can have. But other rules around Georgia control new home designs from floor to roof.

And the power to set community standards should remain with local governments without the state taking away options, according to representatives of city and county interests. More than 100 cities that have passed resolutions opposing the legislation. 

Oconee County’s planning commission considered restricting the use of slab foundations on the majority of homes in 2018, drawing great consternation from local developers.

The home builders say they’re tired of going back to the drawing board to rework plans they feel are appropriate for the housing market.

 “We heard from our board members from around the state that they would submit architectural plans to local governments for review and get the red marker,” Hackney said.

The legislation pending for consideration by lawmakers in the session that starts next January is similar to recent laws passed in North Carolina and Arkansas. In Georgia, House Bill 302 and Senate Bill 17 are alive in both chambers for next year.

A state code based on international standards provides guidelines for building safety without setting architectural controls.

“The bottom line is the bill does not prevent a local government from amending their building codes,” Hackney said. “What our group didn’t like seeing are the design mandates as far as zoning conditions. That’s what we’re trying to address.”

The Georgia Municipal Association and Association County Commissioners of Georgia argue local communities are best equipped to set residential construction standards.

“That’s the kind of thing really needs to be a local decision because what’s right for Johns Creek in north Fulton may not be right for some rural south Georgia cities,” said Clint Mueller, legislative director for the county association. “When you build a subdivision the only way we can get developers to build what we want is through our local design standards.” 

The local regulations limit the number of affordable starter homes being built, Hackney said.

Nationwide, government regulations account for 24% of the final price of a new home, according to a 2016 study by the National Association of Home Builders. 

But regulation is one of many factors in the pricing of a new house, including location and the health of the economy.

“The proponents of the measure claim design standards are a barrier to affordable housing, but in reality, the tight labor market (requiring higher wages) is driving up the price,” GMA spokeswoman Amy Henderson said by email.

One local home builders group that‘s backing the statewide association is the Builders Association of Metro Augusta, although its president said it isn’t yet an issue locally.

A Woodstock city leader is optimistic that a middle ground can be found.

It’s reasonable for some communities to establish a sense of place, said Brantley Day, Woodstock’s community development director.

 “When you go to Decatur, or you go to Roswell or you go to Woodstock, you understand that you’ve arrived in a special place and that’s largely due to the design requirements… that the local body has adopted,” he said.

 

Stanley Dunlap
Stanley Dunlap has covered government and politics for news outlets in Georgia and Tennessee for the past decade. At The (Macon) Telegraph he told readers about Macon-Bibb County’s challenges implementing its recent consolidation, with a focus on ways the state Legislature determines the fate of local communities. He used open records requests to break a story of a $400 million pension sweetheart deal a county manager steered to a friendly consultant. The Georgia Associated Press Managing Editors named Stanley a finalist for best deadline reporting for his story on the death of Gregg Allman and best beat reporting for explanatory articles on the 2018 Macon-Bibb County budget deliberations. The Tennessee Press Association honored him for his reporting on the disappearance of Holly Bobo, which became a sensational murder case that generated national headlines.

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