City votes to oppose HB 302

Published 8:00 pm Thursday, February 28, 2019

On Tuesday, the LaGrange City Council passed a resolution opposing Georgia House Bill 302, which would prohibit local governments from adopting or enforcing standards related to building design elements on one or two-family homes. The Troup County Board of Commissioners discussed a similar resolution during its work session on Thursday, which will be up for a vote next Tuesday.

If House Bill  302 is passed, requirements forcing homes to match the character of their neighborhoods would be nullified except in historic districts and subdivisions with active covenants.

“Right now, there is a bill pending — it has kind of gotten bottled up in the House, and it has been refiled in the Senate as recently as late last week,” LaGrange Mayor Jim Thornton said. “It basically would take away from the cities and the counties the ability to write design standards into our zoning ordinance.”

One example of those requirements was fresh on the council’s mind on Tuesday as a vote to rezone a piece of land on Bryant Lake Boulevard was also unanimously approved, with conditions requiring the same standards for building materials for homes in the new area as in the neighboring existing development. That zoning received no comment from the council at that time, but the standards were referenced in a work session discussion.

“In 2007, as part of the Bryant Lake rezoning, the city council wrote design standards into that rezoning,” Thornton said. “At the recommendation of the planning commission, we’ve written design standards into the proposed rezoning that is on the agenda now. Literally, design standards appear throughout our zoning ordinance. We always discuss those and have the discretion locally whether to include them or not and modify them from time to time.” 

Those standards are regularly discussed in both city council and Troup County Board of Commissioners meetings, especially when citizens living near a new development bring forward concerns that new development could devalue their property.

“So, you are telling me that what this bill is proposing is the same standards that would apply in Buckhead, would apply in Hogansville, Georgia?” Commissioner Lewis Davis asked on Thursday. “Basically, it is just another example of taking away the power of local government to decide what is best for their community.”

Jay Anderson, senior building official for Troup County, said that the bill would mean that no building standards could be applied beyond the building code. Regulations regarding everything from roof pitch to house color would no longer apply. 

Over the phone, Rep. Vance Smith (R – Pine Mountain), a sponsor of the bill, said his concern is for private property owners’ rights.  

“I just feel like at some point we are going to start interfering — and have in some areas — with those private property rights,” Smith said. “I believe citizens have the right, on their property, abiding by the laws that are on the books, to build their homes and have the right color, the right materials that they want on the outside. The state has a list of approved materials that you can build a home out of, so that is all the ones that they can use. As far as the structure of the house and the quality, I guess that would be left up to the building inspector’s department. I am talking about areas where it is aesthetics that has nothing to do with structural [concerns].”

Smith said that property maintenance codes regulating the condition of properties could still be passed and enforced at the local level.

Speakers at both the LaGrange City Council and Troup County Board of Commissioners work sessions said the bill has received support from the vinyl siding industry and is opposed by the Georgia Municipal Association.

“The proposal seems to be being pushed through by builders, developers, realtors and also some material manufactures, like vinyl siding manufactures and suppliers, who are also pushing it,” Anderson said. “Obviously, their interest is some jurisdictions have part of their design standard of no vinyl siding or no vinyl siding in certain parts of their county or city.”

Anderson said that some of those in favor of the bill claim that limitations on materials like vinyl siding hurt business in areas where it is banned, but he claimed that the standards that Troup County puts in place are typically written to protect existing investments. He also said that some jurisdictions ban building materials that could prove to be a safety hazard to residents, like vinyl siding on beachfront properties.

“These are issues that we take seriously,” Thornton said. “We don’t take action lightly, but we think that these debates and discussions need to occur at the local level, where the citizen’s voices can be heard, because the citizens are the ones that speak to us through this process and ask us to include or not include certain standards. If the citizens are unhappy with some of the standards that we include or don’t include, they’ll let us know, and we can modify them. But, I do think those are decisions that need to be made at the local level.”

Thornton also said that both he and GMA felt that the legislation took power out of the hands of the people who live in communities. Davis and Anderson made similar comments during the Troup County Board of Commissioners meeting on Thursday.

“It seems to me and to GMA to be an extreme overreach into what we call home rule, where we let every community design standards for themselves,” Thornton said. “LaGrange is different from Decatur, but it is also different from Blakely, and we can all make decisions for ourselves.”

The GMA website says that design standards attract high-quality builders and ensure that the investments made by builders and developers are protected. It claims that HB 302 would put those investments at risk.

Other state legislators say they are undecided in regards to the legislation.

“It is an interesting debate — individuals building houses feel that the local government is overreaching by telling them what they can and cannot do on their personal property such as what color they can paint their house, what floor plan, what foundation, etc.,” Rep. Randy Nix (R – LaGrange) said in an email. “On the other hand, local governments think the state is overreaching by saying they can’t regulate that. I could argue either side. Contacts I am receiving on the issue are running about 50-50.”

According to Thornton, other GMA cities are expected to pass similar resolutions as they meet during regularly scheduled council meetings. 

According to Hogansville Mayor Bill Stankiewicz and West Point Mayor Steve Tramell, a resolution to oppose HB 302 will be up for a vote in Hogansville on Tuesday and in West Point the following week.

The LaGrange City Council will meet again on March, 12 at 5:30 p.m. at 208 Ridley Avenue.