State House lawmakers gave tentative approval Tuesday to a proposal to block cities from imposing appearance standards on new homes.
House Bill 150 would restrict cities' power to set standards for the architecture, appearance or other design of single- or double-family homes, both in new developments and in established neighborhoods.
Many cities around the state have used such ordinances to protect the character of neighborhoods or new additions. But critics say local officials have abused the practice – and some say municipalities don't even have the power to set such standards in the first place.
"They have taken it far afield and sometimes to the absurd," said sponsor Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake. "We are restoring the balance so that individuals have the ability to be able to have some choice in their housing and what their housing looks like."
Dollar said some cities have used aesthetics rules to keep out affordable housing, including homes built by Habitat for Humanity, or to make such housing prohibitively expensive.
Rep. Rick Glazier, D-Cumberland, said that, even when such ordinances are used for good policy reasons, the fact remains that the state Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that cities "have no authority under the statutes of the state to be doing that."
"I don’t think it’s government’s right to tell me what the architectural style of my door ought to be," he added.
The measure wouldn't affect historic districts, homeowner associations or other protected covenants.
Some lawmakers representing urban districts spoke against the bill.
Rep. Yvonne Holley, D-Wake, said older neighborhoods often don't have protective covenants. She warned the bill would allow rooming houses to crop up in single-family neighborhoods because cities would no longer be able to limit the number of bedrooms or kitchens in homes.
Rep. Paul Luebke, D-Durham, said established neighborhoods want, and should have, the power to protect themselves and their property values against infill homes that don't fit the neighborhood's character.
"What if someone wants to build something aesthetically jarring and the neighbors aren't happy with it?" asked Rep. Marilyn Avila, R-Wake.
But advocates said cities won't be left powerless.
Glazier said municipalities will still be able to influence the look of neighborhoods through other, less-direct tools like zoning.
"Let’s not fool ourselves that they don’t have the power to do that," he said. "They do it all the time."
Home builders, realtors and some affordable housing groups are supporting the bill. Groups representing city and county governments and planning authorities are opposed to it.
The bill passed its first of two House votes 94-22. Its second vote is scheduled for Wednesday. It then goes to the Senate.