Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chair John Daniell said on Tuesday that legislation introduced in the Georgia General Assembly last week, if passed, would “nullify” Oconee County’s Comprehensive Plan.
Oconee County Commissioner Chuck Horton called the legislation “an attack on local control.”
The two were reacting to House Bill 517, called the Georgia Homeowner Opportunity Act, introduced by Rep. Dale Washburn, Republican from Macon.
Watkinsville Mayor Brian Brodrick called the bill a bigger threat to the county than all of the shopping centers and subdivisions residents have been opposing.
The bill would prohibit counties and cities in the state from regulating building design of one- or two-family dwellings, unless those dwellings were in a historic district.
House Bill 517 has been assigned to the House Governmental Affairs Committee, on which Oconee County Rep. Houston Gaines sits.
Gaines and Marcus Wiedower, who also represents Oconee County in the Georgia House, have not responded to a question asking for their position of House Bill 517.
Washburn also filed a related bill, HB 514, called the Housing Regulation Transparency Act, that would limit a temporary moratorium on zoning decisions or issuance of permits by a local government to not more than 180 days.
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Both bills have been endorsed by the Georgia Coalition for Housing Opportunity (GCHO), which says the bills will “address the affordable housing crisis in Georgia and encourage sustainable workforce housing solutions across the state.”
Members of the Georgia Coalition for Housing Opportunity include the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, Habitat for Humanity of Georgia, the Home Builders Association of Georgia, and Georgia Association of Realtors.
Washburn filed both bills on Feb. 21.
House Bill 517 has five listed co-sponsors, two of whom are Democrats, and the remaining three were Republicans.
House Bill 514 has four additional sponsors, with two Democrats and two Republicans.
Athens Rep. Spencer Frye and four other Democrats on Feb. 16 introduced House Bill 490 to limit the tax benefit to large institutional investors who purchase single-family homes and then rent them out.
That bill has been assigned to House Ways and Means Committee, on which both Gaines and Wiedower serve.
Focus On House Bill 517
Both Daniell and Horton focused their attention on House Bill 517 when I asked them about that bill and House Bill 514 and House Bill 490.
I directed my question to the two of them on the county Commission because they had worked against House Bill 309 in 2019, which would have prohibited cities and counties from regulating design standards for one- and two-family residential properties.
That bill was introduced by Rep. Vance Smith of Pine Mountain.
Horton said that "The presentation has changed a little, but this is the same issue. It is an attack on local control."
"It is an attempt to control local governments on zoning issues and, in our situation, on conditional zoning," he said.
Conditional zoning is zoning that is subject to conditions not applicable to other property. Not all governments use conditional zoning.
"If they pass this, the state might as well take control of zoning," Horton said. "This is just the tip of the iceberg."
Daniell also compared House Bill 517 with Smith’s 2019 bill.
“HB 517 will basically nullify Oconee County's Comprehensive Plan,” Daniell said.
“HB 517 is a much more dangerous bill than the version presented a couple of years ago,” Daniell said.
Oconee County is in the process of updating its Comprehensive Plan and says on its web site that the plan provides “long-range policy direction for land use, transportation, economic development, housing, public facilities, intergovernmental agreements, and natural resources.”
The comprehensive Plans “serves as a guide for elected and public officials by providing the framework for evaluating development proposals,” according to the county web site.
Daniell disputed the claim that House Bill 517 would reduce home costs.
“Similar bills passed in North Carolina have not reduced the sales price of homes,” he said. “In fact, the average home prices in North Carolina are higher than Georgia.”
“Nothing in HB 517 requires any possible cost savings to be passed on to the home buyer,” Daniell said.
HB 517 Details
House Bill 517 says that “No county or municipal corporation shall adopt or enforce any ordinance or regulation relating to or regulating building design elements as applied to one- or two-family dwellings.”
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The “building design elements” that local governments cannot regulate are “Exterior building color; Type or style of exterior cladding material; Style or materials of roof structures or porches; Exterior nonstructural architectural ornamentation;
“Location or architectural styling of windows and doors, including garage doors; The number and types of rooms; The interior layout of rooms; Types of foundation structures approved under state minimum standard codes;
“Covered parking; Structural square footage minimums greater than 1,200 square feet; Lot size minimums (except as required by state code); and Lot width minimums or road frontage minimums.”
These restrictions on local legislation do not apply if “The structure is located in an area designated as a historic district” under the Georgia Historic Preservation Act, if it is “located in an area designated as a historic district on the National Register of Historic Places,” or if it is "individually designated as a local, state, or national historic landmark.”
The bill says local governments can enforce ordinances or regulations setting building design elements if they are “a requirement of applicable state minimum standard codes.”
Watkinsville Mayor’s Reaction
All four of Oconee County’s four cities have their own zoning laws, but Watkinsville alone among the four handles its zoning decisions without input from the county.
“Based on my reading, HB 517 could do more to rapidly develop Oconee than all the shopping centers and subdivisions our citizens have been debating--combined,” Brodrick said on Tuesday in response to my request for his reaction.
“HB 517 does several things that are very negative,” he said. “I think the most dangerous provision for Oconee County is that it removes the ability of local governments to enforce minimum lot sizes.”
“It also eliminates the ability of local governments to regulate the design of homes or require materials beyond basic state requirements when it comes to homebuilding,” he continued.
“In Watkinsville, we established our zoning and building codes with tremendous citizen input in Watkinsville back in the 2000s,” Brodrick said.
“They represent the standards that our citizens want for their community,” he wrote in his email response. “We gave this a tremendous amount of thought based on historic patterns of development and the kind of housing our citizens said they are looking for in the future.”
“I hope Oconee citizens will reach out to Reps. Wiedower and Gaines and Sen. (Bill) Cowsert and express their opposition to this HB517,” Brodrick said.
According to his biography on the General Assembly web site, Washburn, the chief sponsor of House Bill 514 and House Bill 517, “grew up in the construction and real estate development business” and “has been a licensed real estate practitioner for nearly 50 years.”
Gaines, who represents Bogart and Marswood Hall precincts in Oconee County as well as parts of Clarke, Barrow, and Jackson counties in the 120th House District, is Director of Business Development for Carter Engineering in Oconee County.
Carter Engineering, 3651 Mars Hill Road, is a civil engineering and land planning firm that frequently represents clients seeking zoning changes before the Oconee County Board of Commissioners.
Wiedower, who represents the remaining six precincts in Oconee County as well as parts of Clarke County in the 121st House District, is Vice President for External Affairs at Hillpointe, a development, construction, materials sourcing, and property management firm. He also is general contractor for Bulldawg Builders.
Kelly Mahoney, co-founder and managing partner of Hillpointe, developed the Falls of Oconee commercial center and Athens Ridge student house complex on Old Macon Highway.
Frye is Executive Director of Athens Area Habitat for Humanity and also owns and manages rental properties in Athens-Clarke County.
The House legislation is not out of Committee and will have to pass the House by Monday to reach the Senate. Cowsert is an Athens attorney.
From their reaction, the Oconee BOC must not closely follow the actions of the Georgia state house. They have frequently shown in recent years that "Local Control" is merely a buzzword and not a guiding principle for legislation.
Just a reminder. I will only publish comments with a real name attached.
Our quality of life is always at risk when the legislature is in session. Thanks to the commissioners for trying to prevent these bills from becoming law.
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