Bill targets neighborhood-protection zones

Mar. 16, 2013 @ 11:00 PM

A bill currently scheduled to be voted on Tuesday in the N.C. House could force local officials to repeal some of the regulations they’ve established to protect the look of a few existing neighborhoods.

As drafted, it would bar cities and counties from regulating the “building design elements” of single-family houses, duplexes and townhouses.

It defines those as including a house’s color, cladding, roof and porch style, ornamentation, window and door location and styling, number and type of rooms and the interior layout of the rooms.

The bill cleared committee on Thursday despite opposition from local-government officials who say it undermines their control over infill development.

It takes away authority commonly used by cities and counties across the state “to maintain a focus on the vision of what that town is going to be and its own character and flair,” said Paul Meyer, head lobbyist for the N.C. League of Municipalities.

In Durham, the bill appears to threaten part of the “neighborhood protection” zone a unanimous City Council approved in 2008 for the Tuscaloosa-Lakewood neighborhood at the request of its residents.

The Tuscaloosa-Lakewood zone includes a rule, designed to prevent cookie-cutter development, that bars new structures on a block from having “the same elevation with the same architectural features” as another building that exists or is under construction.

 It specifically called for attention to façade materials, porches, number and location of doors and windows, and roof styling.

City/County Planning Director Steve Medlin said the bill would “clearly invalidate” provisions of Durham’s land-use law, particularly those associated with the Tuscaloosa-Lakewood zone.

He added that his staff would “perform a comprehensive review” of the entire ordinance looking for other conflicts if the bill becomes law.

The bill would also appear to threaten parts of the seven “neighborhood conservation districts” Chapel Hill’s Town Council has established at the behest of residents.

Two of the districts, covering the historically black Northside and Pine Knolls neighborhoods, include provisions that say a house occupied by unrelated persons can’t have more than two bedrooms.

The restriction is intended to discourage the conversion of actually or potentially owner-occupied homes into rentals for UNC students.

The push for the bill is coming from the N.C. Home Builders Association and, in the House, a group of 16 Republican legislators. A similar bill is pending in the N.C. Senate and there has bipartisan support.

Advocates contend it would eliminate over-regulation of the construction trade by local governments.

But leaders of the association’s local branch, Home Builders Association of Durham, Orange and Chatham Counties, weren’t “the ones that asked for it and haven’t been involved in pushing it,” said Frank Thomas, the local group’s government-affairs director.

Thomas said “the legislation was not drafted with the intent of fixing anything in our three-county region” because “nobody has come to us to complain about” the neighborhood-protection rules in Durham and Chapel Hill.

But he added that there are some towns elsewhere that builders think have gone overboard, by taking “great pride in regulating every single aspect of the appearance of every house built in their jurisdiction.”

“I can understand where legislation like this comes from,” Thomas said.

Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt said he’s asked his town’s administrators to size up the potential effects on its ordinance. But that work remains incomplete.

Kleinschmidt attributes the momentum behind the bill to “some of the challenges we have in the representation in the General Assembly presently” – and added that by that, “I don’t mean partisan [differences], I mean the lack of urban representation.”

The 2011 election produced significant turnover in both chambers. Freshmen hold 41 of the House’s 120 seats – a bit more than a third. Seven of the freshmen are sponsoring the design-controls bill.

But “we have a governor who’s been a mayor and I would hope and like that he provides leadership on issues like this,” Kleinschmidt said, alluding to Gov. Pat McCrory, a former mayor of Charlotte.

Kleinschmidt’s 12 counterparts in Wake County’s cities and towns are unanimously opposed to the bill. Their numbers include Apex Mayor Keith Weatherly, a Republican who’s legislative assistant to House Speaker Pro Tem Paul Stam, R-Wake.

Apex planners say the bill would wipe out many of the controls they’ve put in place to “protect the character of [the town’s] downtown residential neighborhoods,” and open the door for the conversion of single-family homes into rooming houses.

But Stam “is going to support it,” Weatherly said, adding that his boss had told a community group that “Keith and I are going to have to disagree on this one.”

Stam couldn’t be reached Friday for comment.

To become law, the bill would have to pass the Senate and gain McCrory’s signature, or pass both chambers by a three-fifths margin to overcome a veto.