Chapel Hill: Opinion

Mark Zimmerman: Hands off our houses

This month marks the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, the foundation document for many of the freedoms we enjoy to this day, among them the protection of private property rights. So it is fitting, a small way, that our legislature just passed a law reaffirming some rights of private property owners in North Carolina.

Senate Bill 25, which passed with support from both parties and veto proof majorities in both houses, prevents local governments from regulating the aesthetic design of family homes. Zoning ordinances may control the size and placement of houses, but not what they look like on the outside or inside, unless you’re in a historic district.

Specifically, the bill prohibits towns and counties from dictating building design elements such as exterior color and materials, styles of roofs, architectural ornamentation, use of porches, window and door placement, garage entrances, and number, types and layout of rooms.

In other words, you can tell homeowners how big or small their homes can be, but don’t tell them what they should look like or how they can live inside them.

Interestingly, the bill was passed to “clarify” the law. In our state, the only powers local governments have are those granted them by the legislature. The North Carolina legislation that enables zoning never permitted these regulations.

However, over the years most cities and towns have inflated their zoning to encompass many of these restraints. Some places have really abused their self-appointed power; one town requires brick on all sides of houses – you can imagine what that does for affordability. Many of these strictures increase the cost of housing. They also decrease freedom.

Eventually, the legislature felt it had to rein them in.

People can still voluntarily agree to any of these controls. Private neighborhood covenants are still permitted. But homeowners have the choice to buy in those areas. When zoning takes over that choice is gone.

Since this was supposed to the be the law all along, the bill affects ordinances already on the books, as well as anything in the future. That should prompt an immediate, thorough review of all zoning, neighborhood-conservation districts, special-use districts, etc. Each of our communities will have some elements on the books that are no longer enforceable.

The right to use your private property as you see fit has always been subject to some restraints. But it is a right nonetheless, with a history that can be traced back through our constitution to the beginnings of common law in England nearly a millennium ago. Like all our rights, it is under constant risk of erosion by the expansion of government power, even in our own backyard. With a little help from our state legislature, that tide has just been nudged back. Now, in a modest way, we’re a little more free to express our individuality.

Mark Zimmerman lives and owns a real estate company in Chapel Hill. He can be reached at