NC House OKs limits on residential standards

aspecht@newsobserver.comMarch 19, 2013 

— Despite calls for compromise, the N.C. House on Tuesday voted 94 to 22 to pass a bipartisan bill that limits the power of local governments to regulate residential housing based on their design or appearance.

The state Senate is expected to take up the bill as early as next week.

The bill would prohibit towns from withholding building permits based on a builder’s design elements such as his building materials or garage size. It exempts houses deemed historic by the state as well as private covenants or other contractual agreements, including those adopted by homeowners associations.

Opponents, including the Wake County Mayors Association, say the bill might endanger property values of homes in older neighborhoods not protected by homeowners associations. They also fear that stripping municipalities of their ability to regulate the number of bedrooms in a house would lead to de facto boarding houses where they’re not permitted.

In a 45-minute discussion, supporters defended the bill by saying it would put residential development on a fast-track, increase consumer choice, and rein in local governments who have abused their rights.

“Frankly, I don’t think it’s any of the municipality’s business ... what the architectural style of my door should be,” said Rep. Rick Glazier, a Democrat from Fayetteville.

Glazier and Rep. Nelson Dollar, a Cary Republican who sponsored the bill, referenced a 2010 appeals case – Lanvale Properties vs. Cabarrus County – in saying local governments have no legal authority to impose housing design standards in their ordinances.

Paul Meyer, director of governmental affairs for the League of Municipalities, says that Dollar and others are misinterpreting the judge’s opinion from that case.

“That was a case that focused on the authority of counties to use adequate public facilities ordinances,” Meyer said. “It’s not about aesthetics controls or (design standards). Folks have taken that decision and turned it into something that it just isn’t.”

Differing opinions on what local governments have the legal authority to do have led to tense exchanges. Rep. Paul Luebke, a Durham Democrat, veered from the debate on the bill’s pros and cons to ask Dollar about his political philosophy.

“Do you believe in local (government) control?” Luebke asked.

“I believe that local governments are creatures of the state,” Dollar responded.

Luebke asked Dollar to table the bill so they could work together on a law that allows government the ability to protect older neighborhoods vulnerable to new, nonconforming housing.

Dollar said the bill is “fine as written.” He and Glazier said municipalities could use their zoning power to impact the aesthetics of certain residential housing.

If the bill becomes law, municipalities might be able to implement some design aspects through voluntary zoning conditions, according to Adam Lovelady, an assistant professor at UNC’s School of Government. But municipalities would have to walk a thin line.

“If it is clearly understood by everyone that (additional aesthetic rules) was quietly required, that could run into trouble,” Lovelady said. Still, it’s a “gray area, and often depends on case-by-case evaluation.”

Staff writer Andrew Kenney contributed.

Specht: 919-829-4826

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