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REBIC opposes Huntersville ordinance amendment

Homebuilders say a proposed amendment to the Huntersville zoning ordinance doesn’t go far enough to comply with a new state law that prohibits governments from placing purely aesthetic design requirements on single-family homes and duplexes.

Huntersville is amending its ordinance in an effort to comply with the law, which went into effect June 19.

The General Assembly passed the bill in response to some municipal ordinances that dictated elements such as garage setbacks, building materials, the placement and style of windows and doors, and colors used. Exceptions to the new law were provided for homes in historic districts, manufactured homes, and elements required to meet safety codes and flood insurance conditions. Private homeowner association covenants also can continue to dictate design standards.

Builders said such requirements force them to spend more money, which in turn is passed on to homebuyers.

The bill also stipulated that such regulations may be applied if the developers consent to those conditions as part of the development approval process, and it is in that seemingly gray area that battle lines are being drawn between towns’ proposed ordinance changes and homebuilders’ interpretation of those changes.

Huntersville has proposed amending its zoning ordinance to replace “shall” with “should” for previously mandatory design considerations, including porch placement, size and construction materials, and design that is “sympathetic to the historic architectural vocabulary of the area.”

One proposed amendment eliminates language requiring that garages on lots wider than 60 feet be recessed 10 feet from the home’s front primary plane.

Where the hair-splitting comes in is in a provision that would require single-family homes and duplexes to be built on lots at least 60 feet wide, except in rural and transitional districts. However, should builders seek approval for smaller lots, they would need to build alleys behind the residences for rear-access garages and to allow on-site parking for the units.

Mint Hill tried a similar approach: making adherence to design standards voluntary, except in the case of conservation subdivisions, in which houses are clustered on smaller lots, leaving more open space. The town said that seeking a conservation subdivision zoning is a choice, and that builders that don’t want to abide by the regulations can instead choose another type of zoning.

Mint Hill’s Board of Commissioners voted unanimously Nov. 12  to eliminate mandatory design standards from the rest of its unified development ordinance.

In Huntersville, another proposed change would require that driveways not occupy more than 30 percent of the street front, which for a 60-foot lot would be 18 feet — enough for a single-car width, but not wide enough for two.

The Real Estate and Building Industry Coalition believes these changes violate the law’s provision prohibiting regulations on the “locations or architectural styling of windows and doors, including garage doors.”

“What you can’t do is dictate the location of the garage door and, therefore, the garage,” said REBIC’s executive director, Joe Padilla, on Dec. 22.

Padilla and Rob Nanfelt, REBIC’s government affairs manager, were the only two speakers at a public hearing on the amendment Dec. 21.

The Huntersville Planning Board is expected to consider the amendment at its Jan. 26 meeting and make recommendations to the town’s Board of Commissioners. The commissioners are expected to vote on the amendment at their Feb. 1 meeting.

“We feel the staff proposal (for the amendments) is consistent with the statute and so does the town attorney, Bob Blythe,” Jack Simoneau, Huntersville’s planning director, said Dec. 22.

Simoneau said the amendment for smaller lots was proposed because those properties have limited parking space. That means vehicles often park on streets, making trash collection and road work difficult and more costly; creating more hazards for pedestrians; and limiting the ability to plant trees and install street lights, according to a staff report.

Padilla dismissed the town’s arguments.

The town could pass ordinances to solve the parking problems rather than make builders add alleys, he said.

“We don’t think alleys should be required on any lot size,” he said.“If a builder wants an alley and a detached garage, then the town can dictate where that goes.”

Attorney Tommy Odom, whose Charlotte-based The Odom Firm specializes in zoning issues, said he believes the changes are legal.

Odom pointed to a section of the law that states that it doesn’t apply to the location of a structure on a lot, and that a parking area or garage could be considered a structure.

The approaches being taken by the towns was foreseen by at least one architect, who was interviewed before the law was enacted: “I predict that we may see a lot of zoning regulations change to only permit large lot housing to bypass the negative impacts of unregulated small lot housing permitted by this bill,” wrote Craig Lewis, an architect with Stantec’s Urban Places Group in Charlotte, in an email. “For folks that want greater density, they would have to go through the conditional district process and volunteer these conditions to gain their approval. Seems like this bill might just increase process rather than relieve regulation.”

Mark Abramson contributed to this report

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