County Code Cements Tension Between Regulators, Homebuilders

Outside of Athens, Georgia, in the small city of Winterville, the Jenkins family has spent the past 10 years contemplating a better life in nearby Oconee County.

“It’s because of the school system that we want to move to Oconee County,” said father-of-three Travis Jenkins. Two of Jenkins’ children are still school-aged, and could benefit from the vibrant school system in the county.

According to the Oconee school system’s website, students there benefit from a 92% graduation rate. In 2020, Oconee County ranked No. 1 for “Best Counties for Families in America,” according to 

One big challenge, however, stands in their way. While Travis is an insurance agent who earns a comfortable living, houses in Oconee are generally priced beyond his income. 

“I did real estate appraising before I got into insurance,” Jenkins said. “I believe that the price per square foot for property in Oconee County is just insane.”

Data on housing prices from the Georgia Association of Realtors shows that the average sales price for a home in Oconee County was $611,836 in April 2022 – 50% higher than the state average.

Home prices depend on a number of factors, like desirable school systems or proximity to good jobs. The demand for housing in Oconee keeps rising, but the supply of new houses isn’t keeping up. Some builders say the Oconee County government imposes burdensome architectural standards that prevent them from building affordable homes for families like Travis Jenkins’. 

Counties throughout Georgia follow statewide minimum building standards. These laws, among other things, mandate that structures meet basic additional fire, plumbing and energy conservation codes. Local governments can, if they choose, adopt additional regulations that go beyond minimum state standards. These additional regulations are known as permissive codes.

A review of the average home sales prices between April 2021 to April 2022 in Oconee and its six neighboring counties revealed the following:

  • Greene County had a 5.5% percent decrease
  • Clarke County had nearly a 14% percent increase 
  • Morgan County had a 14% percent increase 
  • Walton County had a 16% percent increase
  • Barrow County had a nearly 30% percent increase
  • Oconee County had a 41% increase
  • Oglethorpe County had a 73% increase  

Oconee and Oglethorpe were the counties with the biggest increases in home sales prices. Leaders in Oconee and Oglethorpe have also created and enforced codes that the other five did not.

In addition to the statewide minimum standards, Oconee has rules that, among other things, regulate how one may construct or alter one- and two-family dwellings, as well as codes that address fires and hazard management. Oglethorpe, meanwhile, imposes a code that regulates how one may install or alter private sewage disposal systems. The county also has rules regulating fire alarms and handicap access to public facilities.  

Oglethorpe’s home prices have soared, but that’s not necessarily the result of that county’s housing regulations. This, according to realtor Iris Walker, who is based in Lexington, the county seat.

“I would say inventory [has a lot to do with the increase]. We did not have any,” Walker said, adding she believes Oglethorpe, which is rural and has a low cost of living, attracts many people who want to get away from a costlier city life. 

“When a house went on the market that was reasonably priced, then we had multiple offers. Therefore, they would sometimes pay $50,000 to $60,000 more than the listing price, and even in cash.” 

Oconee County commissioners made headlines four years ago when they unanimously passed an ordinance that regulated who could build a concrete slab and where. Slab construction is a common building method where, instead of a basement or crawlspace, the foundation is a flat concrete slab with no space underneath.The Oconee County ordinance was not a full ban on slab construction. Instead, the ordinance stated that new homes in new major subdivisions (which are often defined as five or more lots) could not have a concrete slab if the property met not just one but both of the following conditions:

  • The property had a final plat approved after January 1, 2018. 
  • The lot had existing predeveloped grades with a maximum slope grade change of 5% in the building envelope. A zero grade slope indicates a level ground surface, while higher numbers indicate higher degrees of tilt. 

Exempted from the ordinance were adult communities for people 55 and older, continuing care retirement communities, and single-family detached homes in minor subdivisions on undivided acreage tracts. 

Do a higher number of construction and development codes in a county increase the price of a home? Yes, by tens of thousands of dollars, according to several of the 13 Athens-area home builders, architects and real estate agents interviewed for this story. They went on to say that modern construction standards make Oconee County’s ordinance regulating concrete slabs unnecessary.

And Travis Jenkins agrees. 

“Think about building a frame house on a concrete slab versus having to build that crawl space up. You have to put moisture barriers in that crawl space. You have to run plumbing under that crawl space. You have to have a subfloor instead of a concrete slab. Of course, the builder won’t eat that cost versus building somewhere else,” Jenkins said.  

“They will pass that cost along to the buyer. I don’t agree with that at all. That will absolutely increase the cost of properties.”

Oconee County saw a 41% rise in home prices from April 2021 to April 2022.

“A Direction Away From Affordability”

Oconee County commissioners proposed this ordinance regulating concrete slabs in 2018.

Athens-area home builders who spoke out at commission meetings that year said hundreds of people turned out to oppose the ordinance. Half the people who attended had to stand outside the commission chambers. According to those builders, if anyone in the crowd that day supported the no-slab proposal, then they kept quiet. 

Among the attendees was Homebuilders Association of Georgia Executive Vice President Austin Hackney.

“The point was made over and over again [by the public] about affordability,” Hackney said. 

“I just don’t think the commissioners connected those dots, or if they did it was to go in a direction away from affordability.”  

Oconee County Commission Chair John Daniell said he remembered these events differently.  

“There was a big contingency where one builder had their employees show up in certain colored shirts [to show solidarity against the proposal]. Then you had a lot of real estate folks from neighboring Walton County that came over as well as a couple of builders there,” Daniell said.

“We were getting comments through our normal channels. We had emails from people saying they supported this. Just because they didn’t show up didn’t mean it wasn’t the only means of communication with us. We feel like the community was behind us. That seems to be the case anyway. Most of us got to keep our jobs after that.”

Some of the people who opposed the ordinance four years ago continue to build homes in Oconee and continue to profit off of the residents there, Daniell said.

The remaining four county commissioners either declined to comment for this story or did not return requests seeking comment. 

Oconee County Commission Chair John Daniell says he believes the Oconee community supports the slab regulation.

Passing Costs Down to the Customer

Athens-area builder Brad Stephens said that under this ordinance certain homeowners could pay an additional $15,000 to $25,000 to install a crawl space for a home of 2,000 to 2,500 square feet. 

“[A concrete slab] saves a month probably on the smallest and cheapest house and probably saves as much as six weeks to three months on a large custom home,” Stephens said.  

“That’s because the slab there is so much less dirt and work that needs to be moved. Once you prepare the dirt, dig the footers, put the plumbing in and then pour the slab then, boom, you are off to the races. You can start framing them from there and then everything goes vertical from there, but when you do a crawl then you have to dig the footers and then you put the foundational walls in, and then bring the house and then the plumbing comes in after that. Then you have to come back and bring dirt in to recover the crawl space.”

Other builders and contractors interviewed said concrete slabs have been an approved and acceptable building practice for 50 to 60 years. 

Homeowners could pay an additional $15,000 to $25,000 to install a crawl space that meets regulation.

“It’s Weird.”

Daniell, defending the ordinance, said certain builders in Oconee built concrete slabs that didn’t abide by state building codes. He said those same builders didn’t perform compaction tests on certain amounts of dirt they moved. Daniell said these issues can create stormwater and septic drain problems. He did not say exactly how many builders disregarded state building codes.

“It is not ‘no slab’ here in Oconee, but limited slabs,” Daniell said. 

“Major subdivisions can still have a slab, but your pre construction grade has to be less than five percent.”

Daniell, when asked, did not say what percentage of the county zoned to allow for major subdivisions has an existing grade of less than 5%.

“The 5 percent is determined for each lot in a subdivision,” Daniell said, when the question was posed to him via email.

“The 5 percent is reviewed at the permitting process after lot locations are determined by the developer.” 

Members of the county’s planning and code enforcement offices, when asked the same question, did not return requests seeking comment. 

Experts, citing their knowledge and experience, said the ordinance left them baffled. 

University of Georgia College of Engineering professor Sung-Hee “Sonny” Kim has a Ph.D. in Transportation Geotechnics and Materials. In 2021 the Georgia Society of Professional Engineers recognized him as Georgia Engineer of the Year.  

Kim said he had not familiarized himself with Oconee’s ordinance, but, upon hearing of it, said the following: “It’s weird.”

Kim said he knew of no geotechnical rationale for it. 

“In North Georgia we have more problematic soils,” Kim said, referring to Georgia’s famous red clay.

“With these problematic soils we need to use stronger foundations, which is concrete.”

Other builders and real estate agents said crawl spaces are of lesser quality than concrete slabs, invite rodents, cause pipes to freeze and, ultimately, decrease a home’s property values.

Daniell, however, presented county data that said slab houses required two and a half times more septic inspections than non-slab homes. 

When informed of the concerns of real estate agents, builders and engineers, Daniell said via email that “it appears most of the developer community comments are personal opinions.”

“Our design standards have been very consistent for more than 30 years. Homes in Oconee County maintain and increase in value over time. While speed of construction is not our focus, quality and following the state building codes will continue to be our focus. The problematic soils mentioned also impact the private septic systems most Oconee County homes are on and will continue to influence our policy decisions,” Daniell said.

The Georgia Public Policy Foundation sought to interview supporters of the ordinance, using two community-oriented Facebook groups that cater exclusively to Oconee County residents. One of the two Facebook groups has nearly 10,000 members. Only one Oconee resident responded directly to our query, in the comments section.

“It increases the cost of the house and, in turn, the sale price and the value of the house and it’s more aesthetically pleasing,” the Oconee resident wrote.

“This will help to limit track builders heading our way from Gwinnett County. I’m all for it.”  

She did not return requests for an on-the-record interview. 

Income Protectionism?

Several people interviewed believe Oconee County commissioners passed this ordinance to price out the less affluent.  

Georgia State Rep. Spencer Frye (D-Athens), who is also executive director for the Athens Area Habitat for Humanity, said Oconee County commissioners are motivated by income protectionism. 

“That is what this policy is based around,” Frye said. 

“The theory is that they don’t want a certain cost of housing to be available in that county. They want their price points to be a certain level to maintain whatever standards they want — higher property values and higher taxes.”

Daniell denied this. He presented county data that said Oconee, Clarke and Gwinnett counties have far more non-slab houses than slab houses. The data summarizes nearly 13,000 homes in Oconee County. The data said builders in Oconee put up exactly 865 slab houses since 2008. Until that year, at least, slab houses in Oconee weren’t in high demand. Oconee County, according to that data, had more than 11,000 non-slab homes and nearly 1,900 slab homes. 

Daniell, when asked how many slab homes have gone up since the ordinance went into effect in 2018, said county officials “do not have an on-going process to track the data.”

Whether a builder or a county commissioner, both sides of the slab construction issue have one goal in mind.

“We are motivated by quality,” said Daniell. “Quality of construction. Quality of services provided. Quality of life for our citizens.”     

Alan Cannon, an Athens remodeling contractor, said county commissioners have mischaracterized the intentions of local real estate agents and builders.

“Builders and developers are thought to be evil people taking advantage of the environment and homeowners and anybody else we can take advantage of to make a dollar somehow, yet that is as far from the truth as you can possibly get,” Cannon said. 

“We are trying to provide decent quality homes for people.”

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