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Laws to Control Growth Could Backfire on Georgia County

In Bryan County, 20 miles west of Savannah, Hyundai is about to construct a new electric vehicle plant that will employ more than 8,000 people. It’s an economic-development coup for the area and is expected to create a ripple effect of further job growth. The local population is expected to surge as a result.

But will it?

Bryan County locals, including members of the real estate industry, said there are important things for potential Hyundai plant employees to consider before relocating. 

In early 2019, county commissioners, anticipating increasing population numbers, imposed new impact fees. But they did not impose those impact fees because of the Hyundai plant. Local news stories in 2019 did not mention the plant. They couldn’t have, because the announcement that Hyundai was coming to Bryan County did not occur until May 2022.

Commissioners later imposed new design standards on new homes that homebuilders say will increase the price of a house by as much as $30,000 to $50,000. 

Members of the Home Builders Association (HBA) of Greater Savannah filed a lawsuit against the county in 2019. That lawsuit is ongoing. 

“The heart of our lawsuit is to say ‘Look, you are making housing unavailable for  people who could have it if you would just stop doing this,” said attorney Keri Martin, one of the attorneys who represents the Savannah HBA. 

“There is already a housing crisis, and this is driving up costs and creating a housing deficit. It seems obvious that, as a result of these standards, the builders have packed up and left the county. They are not building there.”

Bryan County

For context, three years ago, a Special House Study Committee on Workforce Housing reported that Georgia is one of the top states for attracting new businesses. The Peach State, however, falls short on offering new residents affordable places to live.

The Savannah HBA is composed of residential homebuilders, realtors, mortgage bankers, land developers and others connected to the area’s real estate industry. 

Many HBA members prefer not to speak on record about the lawsuit.

“This is exactly why you need an association to bring the claim on behalf of its members,” Martin said. 

“People’s livelihoods depend on having at least some semblance of a good relationship with the county.”

One Bryan County commissioner is on record as suggesting that the county should not embrace newcomers — at least not without imposing certain financial obstacles upon them.

IMPACT FEES

A mass of new residents can strain existing infrastructure, including schools, roads, police and other services. County governments can assess impact fees on developers to subsidize new infrastructure when they expect population numbers will climb — as Bryan County commissioners did.

The county can exempt businesses from its impact fee ordinance, but residential construction is not eligible for an exemption.  

“Therefore, although single-family homes have relatively low impact on traffic congestion (as compared to businesses), new residences will likely bear the brunt of the impact fees, which will make home ownership even less affordable in Bryan County,” according to the attorneys representing the Savannah HBA.  

“Such unequal treatment violates the terms of the Georgia Development Impact Fee Act and the U.S. Constitution.”  

Bryan County’s impact fees exempt builders who meet two out of three specific criteria:

• They must provide at least 10 jobs at an equal or better pay rate than other local jobs

• They must create a public gathering space with a capacity of 100 or more persons

• They must create a public recreation or cultural opportunity for the citizens of the county

Developers who want an exemption on a project must also require a $1 million or more capital investment.

But, as Martin said, these rules do not apply to one specific group of developers.

“Residential builders are not eligible to receive an exemption — ever — even if they hit those criteria,” Martin said.

Lamar Smith was the only area home builder who would talk on record. He chairs the National Association of Homebuilders’ Land Development Committee. Smith said there’s a right way and a wrong way to implement impact fees. He said county commissioners chose the wrong way.

“Impact fees are a great way to fund different needs, but, by law, you can’t just tap the resources of the new people coming into the county or the city or whatever it is to pay for infrastructure or libraries or schools to benefit everybody. You can’t just say that the people who live here get a free pass. You can use it to pay for roads that are leading up to a particular area that services a new development, like new water lines, new sewer lines and things like that,” Smith said. 

“That is a broader discussion. The whole idea is that it doesn’t cost the homebuilders anything. The homebuilders don’t pay for this. The people who buy the homes do. I don’t pay for this. This is passed [down] through costs [to the consumers].”

Attorneys for the Savannah HBA said of the impact fees “there is an insufficient nexus between the projected growth in Bryan County and the fees to be assessed against new permittees, including, in particular, homebuilders.” They also said impact fees “cannot be used to remedy already existing problems, such as lack of capacity on roadways.” They “must be used to pay a proportionate share of the cost of system improvements needed to serve new growth and development.”

County officials predict Bryan’s population will increase by 10,000 new people, or 23%, by the year 2030. But, for the purposes of the impact fee, county officials say traffic will increase by 80% between now and 2030.

The real question, the attorneys went on to ask, “is whether a residential permittee’s fair share of the roadway improvements associated with a new house is $3,128; whether a grocery owner’s fair share associated with a new supermarket is $630,000; whether Chick-fil-A’s fair share associated with the new fast-food restaurant is $310,000; and so on.”  

“In our estimation, most, if not all, of these fees exceed the permittee’s fair share of the cost associated with the new or improved roadways that are necessary to serve the new development,” the attorneys wrote.

The Impact Fee Ordinance “places an unfair and disproportionate burden on new homeowners and businesses to pay for traffic improvements in Bryan County.” 

“New residences will likely bear the brunt of the impact fees, which will make home ownership even less affordable in Bryan County,” the attorneys wrote.

Martin said Savannah HBA members have challenged the impact fee on constitutional grounds. They said the ordinance and its exemptions violate their equal protection rights. 

NEW DESIGN STANDARDS

Bryan County’s new design standards on new single-family construction, Martin said, are “very offensive.”

The ordinance prohibits vinyl siding even though the International Building Code permits it. 

“There are no health or safety concerns with vinyl siding. [The county commissioners] really just don’t like it. They think it’s ugly, I guess. It’s essentially less expensive platting,” Martin said, adding that county officials have also argued in court that vinyl siding poses a fire hazard. 

“The more expensive the house, the more [money] our builders make, but they like to build with vinyl for other reasons.”

Keri Martin

Martin and one home builder who would not comment on record said many homeowners don’t necessarily desire vinyl siding, but they want to spend more of their budgets on the interior rather than the exterior. Customers, for instance, instead prefer to spend more on engineered wood flooring or granite countertops.

“The government believes it’s their place to tell you how to spend your money, when the real consideration is just aesthetics,” Martin said.

The county also requires homebuilders to build new homes on an 18-inch raised foundation, which adds more to costs. In turn, builders must make certain that foundations are clad in something decorative, such as brick or stucco. They also must build sidewalks that connect a home’s front door to the sidewalk that runs parallel to the main street. All of that costs homeowners thousands of extra dollars. 

Martin said county officials impose these standards upon south Bryan County — but not north Bryan County. 

“The obvious conclusion is that the county wants a more expensive housing product in south Bryan and a less expensive housing product in north Bryan,” Martin said. 

“The county says it cares about health and safety in south Bryan, even though we strongly challenge whether there is any health and safety and other actual legitimate reasons, but that is not of concern in north Bryan. The obvious conclusion is that the county is doing what you call exclusionary zoning. You draw lines in your county, and you say we will put a certain type of people in south Bryan County, and we will put a certain type of people in north Bryan. You cannot make an ordinance that says we want poor people in the north or south part of the county, but you can make an ordinance that says we will exclude lower-cost products in one end of the county. That is what they have done.”

Smith, meanwhile, cited Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” metaphor for unseen forces that move the free market. According to that metaphor, consumers in free markets act in their own self-interests and drive the supply and demand of goods that ultimately benefits the economy overall. 

“Guys like me that compete against each other work really hard to get an edge over my competitors by negotiating and finding the best deals,” Smith said.

“Then the government comes in and says ‘Wait a minute. All of those things are great, but we want you to do X plus, and it has nothing to do with science or engineering.’”

Savannah HBA members challenged these design standards on the grounds that the county’s police powers are valid only if they are tied to welfare concerns and legitimate health and safety interests, which, in this case, they say do not apply. They also said architectural and residential design is a form of the homeowners’ protected free speech.

WHAT DO BRYAN COUNTY OFFICIALS SAY IN THEIR OWN DEFENSE?

Court and county commission meeting transcripts reveal why county officials implemented these new policies.

With that said, repeated attempts to contact Bryan County officials in September 2022 were mostly unsuccessful. The two who did speak said little.

“This is a matter that I cannot comment on,” said County Commission Chair Carter Infinger. 

“No commissioner or staff member will comment either. We are still in the midst of litigation.”

Carter Infinger

County Attorney Leamon Holliday also declined comment.

According to a transcript of the Dec. 11, 2018, county commission meeting, Commissioner Noah Covington defended the county by saying this:

“If you’ve got an exclusive club, sometimes you’ve got an initiation fee. And Bryan County is like an exclusive club. And if you want to move into our county and take advantage of our amenities and our school system, and what we have going on, then maybe you should pay an initiation fee.” 

According to transcripts, attorneys who represent the county said courts give local governments great latitude when it comes to crafting impact fees and other ordinances.

One attorney for the county, Frank Jenkins, said the following:

“We haven’t heard the slightest bit of evidence that someone would say ‘I can’t build houses if you’re going to require me to pay an impact fee.’ And we have dozens of jurisdictions in the state where impact fees are proposed, and never has the court said ‘a fee you won’t have to pay.’”  

Before the new ordinances were passed into law, Bryan County officials said they gave Savannah HBA members plenty of opportunities to participate in meetings and committees.  

But Smith said that’s incorrect. 

“We really reached out to the county. We are stakeholders in whatever they decide to do. Typically, if they are going to redo ordinances, they will bring the people that make their living doing this and get our input,” Smith said.  

“The county made a very brief gesture, but they had already decided what they wanted to do. They didn’t want to hear what the builders had to say. When they implemented it, we had no other choice other than to file a lawsuit.” 

Smith said he will build homes only where he “can meet the market” and, if necessary, “will pack up and go to the next county over.”

Martin wondered if Hyundai officials will see the lack of housing availability in Bryan County “and just decide to pack up and leave.” When contacted, Hyundai declined to comment.

Savannah Economic Development Authority spokeswoman Angela Hendrix, however, said Hyundai expects to hire 8,100 people for the new Bryan County plant. 

“We anticipate that Hyundai Motor Group Metaplant America will attract employees from the Savannah region which includes Bryan, Bulloch, Chatham and Effingham counties,” Hendrix said. 

“We also feel employees will come from additional counties in the region and even South Carolina. Additionally, we anticipate people will move to the Savannah region for job opportunities related to the HMG Metaplant America.”

Martin, meanwhile, said county commissioners don’t seem to understand the government’s proper role regulating homeowners.

One of the county’s arguments is just to build a smaller house. Do what we [the commissioners] say,” Martin said.

“And we say ‘Look, it’s not the government’s place to tell a family of five that they should have a smaller house because that is all they can afford, [especially] if they can afford a bigger house that has vinyl siding built on slabs that is perfectly code compliant and safe. Isn’t that their choice?”