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Should Cities Regulate How You Design Your Home?

One state tried to remove local governments' power to dictate things like paint colors.

Man on a ladder painting a house.
State legislators have become great micromanagers, preempting local authority not only on major issues such as minimum wage and environmental protection, but on seemingly every little thing down to the regulation of parking spaces. A case in point is Georgia.

A bill was considered in the legislature this year to take away authority from cities and counties when it comes to all manner of building design requirements, including exterior colors, roofs, porches, windows and doors, as well as foundations and the number and type of the rooms inside.

Local officials called it a giveaway to builders and real-estate agents who want to eliminate requirements that cut into their profit margins. “It’s certainly in their interest to want to build fast, build cheap and let local officials deal with the consequences of subdivisions that may not fit with a local community’s vision of itself,” says Todd Edwards, deputy legislative director for the county commissioners’ association in Georgia.

As is typical when business groups seek regulatory relief at a higher level of government, builders say they’re trying to eliminate a patchwork of confusing and contradictory requirements. The issue isn’t what builders want, says Jim Brown, president of the Home Builders Association of Georgia. It’s what homebuyers want. Local governments shouldn’t tell people what their houses should look like, any more than they should dictate what color clothes they wear. “A builder builds a house based on what people want,” Brown says. “We don’t build what people don’t want. You wouldn’t stay in business very long.”

The problem with that argument is that there’s such a thing as shoddy construction. There’s a reason a municipality might insist on certain building materials or standards. Last year, Georgia legislators passed a bill that bars local governments from ordering builders not to use timber in construction of buildings more than three stories in height. If the local authorities think brick or masonry would hold up better, too bad. “They’re saying design elements are driving up the cost of housing,” says Amy Henderson, communications director of the Georgia Municipal Association, “but really it’s the tight labor market.”

The bill died this year, but local officials saw it as yet another swipe against their authority, something that could set a precedent to take away their control over all construction questions, including zoning. “No doubt,” says Edwards, the counties’ lobbyist, “this is an unprecedented usurpation of local authority in the state of Georgia.”

Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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