Architectural Ordinances: Government Overreach vs. Home Rule

Housing needs, trends and designs change constantly. Through the years, homebuilders have learned to meet the needs, wants and pocketbooks of homebuyers while innovating and adapting to meet changing standards for safety, land use and environmental protection.

Now, however, elected officials are changing that dynamic. Local governments are stifling innovation, mandating aesthetics and materials, restricting designs and layouts, all while infringing upon the rights of private property owners.

This week (February 20), the Georgia House Agriculture and Consumer Affairs Committee narrowly approved a bill that would prohibit local governments from imposing “architectural ordinances” on new home construction. It must make its way through the Legislature.

Consider the enormous differences among the Sears kit home, Craftsman bungalow, the cedar contemporary and Frank Lloyd Wright construction. It’s American nature to be creative, innovative and diverse. Yesterday’s Craftsman bungalow is today’s revived “trendy.” But today’s mandate could be tomorrow’s outdated eyesore: Government cookie-cutter mandates stifle creativity, raising the cost of construction and the price of new homes.

Homebuilders from Athens to Coweta County to Richmond Hill told legislators how mandates are raising construction costs and reducing the affordability of workforce housing as local governments insert unnecessary requirements into their construction plans.

Even though Consumer Reports magazine notes, “Low price and minimal upkeep make vinyl by far the most popular siding material,” its use is banned by Bryan County, Cherokee County, Brookhaven, Duluth, Dunwoody, Johns Creek, Marietta, Roswell, Sandy Springs, Stockbridge and Sugar Hill.

Woodstock effectively bans vinyl windows. Consumer Reports found, “the material doesn’t guarantee performance and neither does price, and there are excellent and mediocre double-hung wood-frame and vinyl-frame windows.”

The International Association of Certified Home Inspectors notes strong and durable aluminum siding can last 40 years or more. It’s about half the cost of a brick façade. Nevertheless, it is banned in Marietta, Dunwoody, Duluth and Stockbridge. Even more intrusive, Brookhaven requires four-sided brick façades; Stockbridge requires at least 50 percent brick façade.  

In Atlanta, a front-facing garage must be 10 feet back from the front façade; Forsyth County wants that standard, too. In Bryan County, it’s a five-foot setback and the garage can be no wider than 50 percent of the overall house width. Woodstock bans front-facing garages altogether.

In Oconee County, concrete slab foundations are barred; Bryan requires an elevated concrete slab. A raised slab foundation is about 40 percent more expensive than a slab per square foot; a crawl space is about twice as much and a basement costs more than four times as much.

Bryan also requires balconies and covered entrances and requires at least four roof planes visible from the front property line. Angie’s List points out, “The complexity of the roof design may require a little more extra materials. Contractors also charge more for installing shingles to complex roof designs. A large variable in pricing is the roof’s pitch, or slope.”

The architectural “aesthetic” ordinances, from the sublime to the ridiculous, are a government intrusion on private property rights. These mandates, local governments argue, “preserve quality growth” and ensure “quality development.” And, they insist, such home rule is what residents want.

For the community’s police officers, teachers, construction workers and hospitality industry workers, however, a new home becomes inaccessible. Instead of ensuring housing affordability for all comers, local governments then demand subsidized “affordable housing.” To recover the cost of affordable housing mandates, developers raise prices for the rest of their buyers and reduce housing affordability for everyone.

Local government must have a role in zoning. But private property rights must prevail. Local elected officials must not be allowed to continue to foist unwarranted mandates on private property owners and builders to deliberately exclude moderately priced housing for reasons that have nothing to do with public safety, environmental regulations or historic preservation.

The chief economist for the National Association of Realtors, Lawrence Yun, points out that, “With the lower end of the housing market – smaller, moderately priced homes – seeing the worst of the inventory shortage, first-time home buyers who want to enter the market are having difficulty finding a home they can afford.”

Georgia has a reputation for welcoming those seeking an affordable, quality standard of living. The state needs to send a message to local governments that “home rule” begins at home, not in the corridors of City Hall. 

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