If North Carolina Senate Bill SB25 passes the N.C. House as written, cities and towns will have little control over what is built in most residential areas of their jurisdiction.
The “aesthetics” bill has come before legislators for the past few years, but this year seems fairly certain to pass.
If it becomes law, it means that municipalities can still put limits on the size of the footprint and roof height of a home, but can no longer control the type of construction materials used (brick, vinyl, etc.), the number of bedrooms or windows, the design of garages, or a number of other aesthetic elements that are detailed in a number of local zoning codes that apply to single-family homes, duplexes or townhomes.
Matthews Mayor Jim Taylor said, if passed, the new law would allow elected officials in Raleigh to determine what is built in cities and towns. Currently, local officials have that responsibility.
“Matthews knows what’s good for Matthews, and Mint Hill knows what’s good for Mint Hill. That may not be the same thing that’s good for Davidson or Huntersville. Each individual community should have a say in what they want their community to look like,” Taylor said.
Pineville Mayor Jack Edwards agrees.
“It’s removing our ability to control what goes into our community. Cities and towns have done this for years, but now, even with conditional zoning, it takes that control away,” Edwards said.
State Rep. Bill Brawley, who helped sponsor the House bill HB36, which is identical to SB25, says municipalities never had the right to control those design elements, and that the state Supreme Court backs him up.
“It’s the law already. That’s what a lot of people don’t understand. The zoning ordinance only gives very limited powers to cities, and some cities are doing what’s not allowed,” Brawley said. “In the case of Landvale vs Cabarrus County (a case concerning impact fees), the Supreme Court said that unless an item is specifically mentioned in the general statute, municipalities cannot legislate it. This bill puts the Landvale decision in the general statute.
“If we don’t do anything, then these towns can be sued, and the taxpayers will have to pay the cost. We need to get everybody on the same page.”
Taylor said he’s talked to lawyers who disagree.
“Our lawyers have said that it is legal and can be done. What Raleigh is doing is not right, but their response is ‘some municipalities across the state are exceeding their authority.’ In their minds, I think they are trying to solve that problem with a very large, broad brush. There may be some towns that are overstepping their boundaries, but don’t punish everyone for the mistakes of a few. I think it’s the general assembly overstepping their bounds,” Taylor said.
Erin Wynia, Legislative & Regulatory Issues Manager with the N.C. League of Municipalities, said her office has prepared a compromise bill she hopes legislators will adopt instead.
“This bill has been introduced for the past three or four years and League members are interested in a compromise,” Wynia said. “We’ve addressed some of the major concerns of cities in this revised bill and hope that legislators will recognize this spirit of compromise. There’s no question that cities and towns are giving up authority they currently have, but we are willing to do that in exchange for some of these limited protections.”
The proposed revised bill would have the new restrictions apply only to single family homes, not be retroactive, keep current restrictions on infill and existing neighborhood construction and prohibit construction of oversized homes in existing developments by allowing cities to control the number of bedrooms in certain neighborhoods.
Brawley received a copy of the league’s proposed revisions from the town of Matthews, and says he will introduce it as part of the discussion of the Senate bill but can’t guarantee it will gain traction.
Homebuilders seem to be happy with the new bill. In the April 29 edition of In the Loop, the official blog of the Real Estate and Building Industry Coalition (REBIC), the group says the bill’s passage will “ensure that housing in North Carolina remains affordable, and preserve the rights of builders and consumers to decide what their home should look like.”
REBIC says it supports the legislation, and “will be working with the North Carolina Home Builders Association (NCHBA) to ensure its passage by the House in the coming weeks.”
Local elected officials are less than enthusiastic.
Taylor says he’s spoken to every mayor in Mecklenburg County and they are all concerned about the proposed limits on their ability to determine the look of residential construction in their communities
Edwards says it’s just more of the same.
“It’s a continuation of legislation that’s taking away power and regulatory authority from local municipalities. No one is happy with what is going on up there in Raleigh. The way I see it, the legislators are taking away our power for everything in the cities and towns,” said Edwards.
Melinda Johnston is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Melinda? Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Find a copy of SB25 at www.ncleg.net then type in SB25 in the Find a Bill search box. Though House Bill 36 has been submitted, Brawley says that because the Senate bill passed first, the House bill will probably go away and the House will work from the Senate bill.