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Should cities control housing design?

YES: Regulations protect homeowners and neighborhoods

By Ben Hitchings
Special to the Observer

In recent years, progressive developers have made an important discovery. If they incorporate design features into development proposals to make them look and function better, communities allow them to build more. But the developer’s investment can be devalued if surrounding neighborhoods aren’t required to meet basic design standards to ensure a similar quality. That’s why it’s surprising that development interests are promoting state legislation (House Bill 150/Senate Bill 139) to prevent communities from using a number of design standards for residential development.

A growing number of N.C. cities and towns use design standards to protect existing neighborhoods and make sure new development supports the character and property values of the community. This is important in older neighborhoods with a distinctive character that don’t qualify for historic designation and in smaller communities that can’t afford a historic district program. And it’s important in newly developing areas where a community decides to promote a particular appearance.

Local design requirements are not enacted casually. Instead they are often the product of years of study and review by residents, businesses, developers and others.

Consider Morrisville. It worked for several years with local stakeholders to prepare a Town Center Code. The result protects Morrisville’s small-town character as it grows and supports a branding strategy that will help the town remain a place of lasting value. Yet the bills would invalidate key provisions of that framework. The same is true for a growing number of N.C. communities that use Neighborhood Conservation Districts to protect the distinctive character of older neighborhoods.

The bills’ proponents might argue that N.C. communities don’t have the legal authority to require design standards. But protecting “the character of the district” and the “value of buildings” has long been a purpose of planning and zoning powers. N.C. case law has established the right of communities to enact zoning measures based on aesthetic concerns alone in order to protect property values, promote tourism and preserve the character and integrity of the community.

The bills’ proponents might argue that design standards infringe on consumer choice. But homeowners clearly select their home and their neighborhood, and most communities offer a range of housing types and styles from which to choose. What residents can’t choose is incompatible development nearby if a community is not able to set basic design requirements.

For many residents, their home is their most valuable asset, and design standards help protect their property values and resale potential.

Private restrictive covenants are a relatively recent phenomenon and don’t protect older neighborhoods from teardowns and ugly infill, and don’t protect newer neighborhoods from low quality-development that locates nearby.

The bills’ proponents might argue that design standards limit affordable housing. Yet, design standards build acceptance for affordable housing by ensuring these units fit into the community.

North Carolina is home to communities with diverse needs and aspirations. These bills would wipe away customized local solutions and disregard the desires of community residents and businesses, replacing them with a one-size-fits-all directive from the state level. And like most unilateral action, this legislation would have serious unintended consequences. For example, it would open single-family homes across the state to conversion into rooming houses. Talk about a recipe for upsetting the neighbors.

Design standards help protect homes, neighborhoods and residents’ right to decide the future of their community. Shouldn’t this remain a local choice?

Hitchings is president of the N.C. Chapter of the American Planning Association, and planning director for the Town of Morrisville. He wrote this for PlanCharlotte.org.
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