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City worries home design bill would strip away leverage with developers

RALEIGH Some Charlotte leaders fear a bill working its way through the state legislature would strip the city of its leverage to make developers work with the community on their projects.

Supported by several members of the Mecklenburg County delegation, the bill would restrict cities’ ability to impose design standards on homes and duplexes. Charlotte has spent the last four years working on a number of them, including standards limiting protruding garages or windowless walls facing streets.

The bill is one of a number this session aimed at limiting the power of cities. Others include the move to transfer control of Charlotte’s airport to an independent authority and a bill to cancel a lease of the former Dorothea Dix hospital land to the city of Raleigh.

Lawmakers and industry groups supporting the design standards bill say it’s a response to cities creating arbitrary rules that drive up the price of construction and dictate too specifically how homes will look.

“I don’t know of anybody who has a lot of taste who runs for office,” said Rep. Bill Brawley, a Matthews Republican who is spearheading the bill in the House. “I would be concerned about being the arbiter of taste for a town.”

He said he had heard of city councils bickering over what shade of yellow a house should be or arguing what color coating should be on a chain-link fence. Lisa Martin, government affairs director of the N.C. Home Builders Association, said complying with the standards can price buyers out of the market.

Bill proponents also point out that homeowners association covenants are unaffected. Cities will still be able to control design in historic districts and neighborhood conservation areas.

But city advocates worry scrapping design standards will make developers less responsive to Charlotte residents. Often, the city will push builders to voluntarily adopt concessions that a community has requested. The bill could weaken the city’s bargaining power, they said.

They also say a lack of standards disrupt what residents want their city to look like.

“We want to have a sense of community in Charlotte,” said Dana Fenton, Charlotte’s legislative liaison.

Paul Meyer, governmental affairs director at the N.C. League of Municipalities said that using design standards to debate house color is rare.

City planning director Debra Campbell said she was most concerned about the “one-size-fits-all” approach.

“There may have been communities that have overextended or created very onerous regulatory standards,” Campbell said. “The city of Charlotte has not.”

But N.C. Sen. Dan Clodfelter, a Charlotte Democrat sponsoring the state Senate version of the bill, said such concerns from cities amounted to “Chicken Little” talk. He said the bill was meant to keep cities from imposing standards like regulating types of construction material. Charlotte should be able to keep a number of the rules it’s been working on, he said.

“The bill is a fairly limited response to the problem,” said Clodfelter, who is also considering a run for Charlotte mayor. “The idea was not to do any sort of major rewrite.”

This is the second session in a row this bill has been introduced. In 2011, a nearly identical bill Clodfelter sponsored made it through the Senate before being held up in a House committee. This year, the House has already passed the bill, and it awaits a Senate committee hearing.

The bill has the support of several industry groups, including the state homebuilders association and the N.C. Association of Realtors.

Brawley received at least $7,500 from the groups over the past two years, more than 10 percent of what he raised in the time period, according to state campaign finance records. Clodfelter received at least $10,000, also about 10 percent, the records showed.

Other metropolitan areas of the state have weighed in on the bill as well. A group of Wake County mayors called the bill a “dire emergency” at a press conference two weeks ago. They said taking away cities’ ability to set standards could erode property values and take away residents’ ability to decide what their communities look like.

Dunn: 704-358-5235 Twitter: @andrew_dunn
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