One of the most fraught political issues under the Gold Dome this session hinges on the importance of the color of your neighbor’s house.
House Bill 302, championed by homebuilders and property developers, would prohibit localities from mandating a list of aspects about one- and two-family dwellings, including exterior color, type or style of exterior cladding material, style or materials of roof structures or porches, exterior nonstructural architectural ornamentation, location and styling of windows and doors including garage doors, number and types of rooms, interior layout of rooms and types of foundation structures approved under state minimum standard codes.
The bill passed out of the House Agriculture and Consumer Affairs Committee by a tight 6-5 vote Wednesday. State Rep. Vance Smith, R-Pine Mountain, is the lead sponsor of the bill. He said he’s been hearing from people about restrictive requirements by cities and counties, and how they’re hamstrung in pursuing what they want in the residence they seek to build.
“And hearing these comments on these additional restrictions, I asked myself, ‘How far do we go,’ I guess, is the big question,” Smith said at the committee meeting Wednesday. “And when do we stop with additional restrictions? How many more will there be? How are they affecting the private citizen and private property rights, is the way I’m looking at it.”
The legislation, as it’s understood, would not affect properties covered by the Georgia Historic Preservation Act, the National Register of Historic Places, historic landmarks, homeowner associations or other zoning ordinances.
Smith said he understands the need for codes and guidelines for soundness and safety, but that localities shouldn’t take away the decision-making ability of people in building their residences.
State Rep. Matthew Wilson, D-Brookhaven, questioned whether the bill would take away the right of local residents in their self- governance.
“I’m just trying to understand why the state has a role in stripping local citizens — you mentioned local citizens — is it not true that local citizens express their intent through electing local officials, and if those local officials have put in codes or ordinances restricting, for example, exterior building color, how does the state have a role in thwarting that?” Wilson asked.
Smith said that, for him, it all goes back to personal property rights.
As strong as the bill’s support is from the development and real estate sectors, it’s opposed with equal passion by the state’s local governments.
“Five years ago, Gov. Deal — former Gov. Deal — invited all 450 mayors of the state of Georgia to his Governor’s Mansion for lunch,” Lilburn Mayor Johnny Crist said. “He was on a quest, at that point, to make Georgia the No. 1 place in which to do business. He challenged all of us, as mayors of our cities, to work with the state to develop a significant No. 1 state. He firmly tasked us with the idea of building our cities, and that included all of the design standards that were in our local covenants.
“I serve on the board of (Gwinnett Municipal Association) — we have 16 cities in the county of Gwinnett, I think we’re the largest number of cities per county of any of the 20 counties in the greater Atlanta area, and I serve on the board of that organization. As I polled our mayors, and there is strong circulation petitions going around about this bill, the No. 1 response from the mayors is, ‘You’ve got to be kidding.’ The reason our cities are the places you want to live is because of design standards.”
Crist said the reason that cities spend so much money to put utilities underground is because of aesthetics, that people want to live somewhere interesting and inviting.
“I’ve been a pastor all my life,” Crist said. “We purchased a racquetball court in Dunwoody, and we converted it to a church facility, and to get through the Dunwoody Homeowners Association and that organization, I just wanted to move out. But you know what, the net result, the building doubled in price in the years that we were there, and I was so glad that I’m in a community that has standards that say you just can’t do what you want to do over there — it’s important.”
A number of homebuilders spoke to the committee, along with Mike Vaquer, who represents the Homebuilders Association of Greater Savannah.
“We are seeing this in a number of jurisdictions where there are efforts to limit the colors that you use, limit the type of exterior facades that are used, and in some of these instances, you have some very bizarre situations where in one ordinance, you cannot use aluminum siding on the facade of the house, but you can use it on the eaves and soffits,” Vaquer said. “How does that figure?
“Style — there are efforts to dictate style, dictate the roofs, to dictate how many roof planes can be visible from the street. What the pitch of the roof is going to be. What the windows are. What the doors are going to be. Where the doors are going to be. How much of the facade of the house can be taken up by garage.”
He said that while this issue could appear just to be about looks, but when you “start diddling with window location and roof pitch and garage location, there are manifestations that take place inside of that property as well. And attached to each one of these product restrictions is additional cost.”
Vaquer said there is a time and a place for aesthetic design standards, but that’s between the property owner and the developer. He and others who spoke to the committee referenced that these standards, when imposed by a locality, can drive up the price and drive down the affordability of entry-level housing.
Tom Gehl, representing the Georgia Municipal Association, called the bill a power grab.
“Put simply, this bill takes the power away from the people, the citizens, to decide the look and feel of our communities,” Gehl said. “It’s a serious threat to home rule, and the local citizens’ control, but it’s a real boon to the homebuilders. These are the same special interests that support the bill. Citizens, not special interests, should make decisions about the look and feel of communities that you all represent.
“This legislation would stop that tough debate that happens, city by city, county by county, of what is an appropriate look and feel for those communities. That debate would go away. Citizens would not be allowed to work with their neighbors, their planning commissions, their locally elected officials, to protect their investments and their property values and regulate design standards for residential homes. It’s a threat to home rule, it’s a threat to local citizens’ ability to control their communities.”
The bill now awaits action on the House General Calendar.
A report of the U.S. Geological Survey’s efforts to track the movement and growth of saltwater plume in Brunswick’s groundwater is nearing completion.
“The report itself is going through the last step in our review process, which is pretty much a regional approval, which is pretty far along,” said Greg Cherry, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey working on the model.
Tracking the saltwater plume is essential to providing Brunswick residents and visitors with clean drinking water, Cherry said.
Hercules chemical resin plant opened in the early part of the 20th century and the Georgia-Pacific pulp mill opened in 1937. The pair sucked a lot of water out of the Floridan aquifer, peaking at more than 80 million gallons per day in 1980, Cherry explained in a December 2017 interview with The News.
The two drew water from the aquifer so quickly that fresh water could not replace it quickly enough, allowing briny saltwater in the Fernandina permeable zone — defined by a 2015 USGS geological survey study as a cavernous, saline water-bearing soil layer between the Floridan aquifer and the surface — to infiltrate the groundwater of the Golden Isles.
The intrusion was first detected in 1957, Cherry said in the December interview. The plume continued to spread as wells continued to pump groundwater, eventually leading to the closure of a Perry Park water well in the 1990s due to high chloride content in the water. Reductions in the amount of groundwater pumped to the surface slowed its growth, but didn’t stop it.
The model is intended to predict the plume’s movement and growth based on surface conditions. It’s mostly complete, and it now awaits the results of recent tests and peer review, Cherry said Friday.
“It’s taking those water level measurements and checking that the model is actually simulating what we call the head, or just above or below that. It gives you a good idea if its accurately predicting,” Cherry said. “It checked out very well, and most of the observations we have are close to the downtown Brunswick area, usually within a few feet.”
Cherry said he expects the study to be ready for prime time by spring or summer. Along with the study, he said the USGS will release the model itself for public use and scrutiny.
Utility commissioners voted to spend $129,000 on the model last year, as Cherry said it had done in previous years, but declared it would only contribute half that the next year.
As the plume affects anyone who draws water from the aquifer, the utility said it would seek funding from Pinova and Georgia-Pacific to make up the difference.
On Thursday, the commission voted to contribute $60,000 to the USGS’ efforts, but it had yet to secure that funding.
“At this point, we haven’t had industry (contributions), not recently. Years ago they have, but not recently,” Cherry said. “It’s always our goal to get them involved and to help with funding as well.”
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series profiling the members of the Islands Planning and Mainland Planning commissions.
Having just wrapped up his second year on the Islands Planning Commission, Chairman Patrick Duncan looks forward to continuing to serve in the development approval process.
Duncan said his background relevant to the Islands Planning Commission starts with the fact he was raised in Glynn County, attended Brunswick High School and the College of Coastal Georgia’s predecessor Brunswick Junior College, ultimately earning his engineering degree at Southern Polytechnic University.
After gaining extensive engineering and construction experience, he said he segued into communications technology and spent the second half of his career overseas. Duncan said he moved back to the Golden Isles around five years ago, finding St. Simons Island had grown considerably.
“It seems that every community I ever lived in was growing. Going through huge growth phases, and that always bring with the challenge of infrastructure and meeting the needs of that growth,” Duncan said. “People migrate to the nice places, and that’s what we have going on here on St. Simons. It’s a special place of Glynn County, and we encourage people to come here. We’ve been welcoming people here a long, long time.”
Planning commissions may have more authority in other counties or municipalities, Duncan said, but he believes the IPC is more of an oversight body within the development process.
“Our role, frankly, is one of technocrats, and we oversee what our development staff works on. I view us more as overseers than as traffic cops for new developments,” Duncan said. “Of course, we get involved in applications. We can ask for conditions or changes to applications and in that regard, we have some influence, but all of that has to be based in law.”
Looking ahead to the next year, he said the Glynn County Commission’s planned overhaul of local ordinances is high on his list of priorities.
“There are obvious flaws and defects in our ordinance. Some of the language is in contradiction of others. Some if it does not dovetail, and that’s because the ordinance has been updated through the years without a comprehensive look at the whole picture,” Duncan said. “It’s complicated, number one. Number two, it’s hard to understand because there are so many sections that refer to other sections. I don’t know how to fix that ... Thirdly, the county’s search engine is very bad. If you were motivated to look and research our ordinance, you would have a hard time doing it because of the search engine.”
He’s got a hard copy of the ordinance he uses, but even that can be difficult to use due to poor indexing, he said.
“I look forward to the opportunity for the IPC to play a role in that effort,” Duncan said.
Duncan also noted public input will play a role in the ordinance overhaul, which is something important to the Islands Planning Commission, he said.
“The IPC itself has gone to great lengths to expand the public’s input. We have public comment on every application we evaluate. That’s going beyond what our counterparts do on the mainland,” Duncan said.
It can have its downsides, he added.
“We do not have what I would consider broad community participation in these hearings,” Duncan said. “When you hear from the same three or four people every month on every project, you know it’s disappointing.”
It’s not always the case, however. There have been applications like October amendment to the Village Creek Landing planned development text, for which residents from a variety of professions gave input, he said.
Overall, Duncan said he has high expectations of the current IPC, three of seven members having attended their first meeting as commissioners on Tuesday.
“I think this current commission has a well-balanced membership. Now when I look at our seven members, half of us are natives or very long-term residents, and the other half are relatively new. I think that’s a proper balance,” Duncan said. “... We have great gender balance, and this diversity of opinions and viewpoints will help us get through what lays ahead.”
Between county Community Development Department staff and motivated citizens and volunteers, Duncan said he’s confident in the development and construction approval process.
“This is not a sleeping community when it comes to looking after our quality of life. I think we have a lot of people that are involved, that’s a really good thing,” Duncan said. “... The bottom line is, communities have to grow. If they don’t grow, they’re dying, and our challenge as a planning commission, we’re just one cog in the whole process. Our challenge is to find the right balance.”