Across North Carolina, city governments play an important but often unseen role in protecting the investments of homeowners. A key tool they use is now in jeopardy. With limited exceptions, Senate Bill 25 Zoning/Design & Aesthetic Controls would prevent municipalities from enacting aesthetic-based design standards for home construction.
Cities use these design standards in different ways and for different needs. In Jacksonville, they are critical to protecting young, military homeowners who often are buying their first homes. These young Marines and their families, because they are likely to be reassigned and have to sell their homes, are among the most vulnerable when it comes to seeing that investment undermined by substandard or incompatible development.
Zoning and design-control standards used by city planning departments ensure home quality and, in the absence of homeowners association covenants, protect the character of neighborhoods. In doing so, they safeguard the value of homes for their owners.
In growing cities like Raleigh and Charlotte, design standards can prove critical when it comes to protecting existing homeowners from in-fill development. In coastal tourism communities like Nags Head and Duck, planners use them to ensure that large vacation rental homes are built appropriately and where the infrastructure can support them. In college towns, planners use the standards to ensure that college rooming houses are built in appropriate locations and not in neighborhoods of single-family residential homes.
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What proponents of the bill appear to miss is how these standards can benefit developers by generating buy-in from the residents of surrounding neighborhoods. In the absence of rules, neighborhood opposition to new projects can mean that no one wins.
Since Senate Bill 25 and its companion, House Bill 36, were filed, the N.C. League of Municipalities has been pursuing compromise language addressing the major concerns of homebuilders. That language would prevent cities, in new developments for single-family homes, from imposing design-element standards for color, exterior cladding, roof style, porch style, window style, garage door style and location, exterior ornamentation, and number and types of most rooms.
But cities could continue to enforce these standards in existing neighborhoods and for a handful of other uses. The Senate approved its bill without the league-supported language. The House can and should do better.
The compromise language is not about supporting cities and their authority. It is about supporting homeowners, their investment and the future value of their homes, and the larger vision that municipal residents have for their communities.
Michael Lazzara is mayor pro tem of Jacksonville and a member of the N.C. League of Municipalities Board of Directors.