Raleigh, N.C. — Companion bills filed in the General Assembly could have serious implications for Raleigh’s regulations on single-family neighborhoods and the new Unified Development Ordinance, the complete rewrite of the city’s zoning code approved last month.
The bills, filed in both the state House and Senate, prohibit most regulations on building in residential zoning districts. Most municipalities in North Carolina, including Raleigh, have local regulations guiding how developers can build homes in areas designated residential.
“The Wake County Mayors’ Conference doesn’t call for a press conference unless there’s an emergency,” said Frank Eagles, chair of the Mayors’ Conference and mayor of Rolesville, at a press conference at City Hall Monday.
“The most important part of local government is getting input from citizens,” said Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane. This bill, she said, “takes away the power of citizens to have that input.”
The House bill passed Wednesday with a 94-22 majority. The companion bill in the Senate was filed the same day and is currently in the commerce committee.
Ken Bowers, deputy planning director for the City of Raleigh, said city staff has been “scrambling to figure out an interpretation.”
If approved in their current form, the laws could have a very real impact on zoning regulations in Raleigh.
Bowers said the biggest implication in the proposal is that cities could no longer regulate the layout of rooms in a house. That sounds innocuous enough, but Bowers asked, “How do you know a layout for a single-family home?”
Well, there’s one kitchen.
“Imagine I go into a house and build four kitchens, four bedrooms, four bathrooms, all along a central corridor. All I need is a couple doors with locks, et voila, I’ve got four units.”
Bowers said that the city has found some developers renovating single-family homes into rooming houses illegally, but these bills would legalize turning homes into rooming houses.
“This impacts every single-family zone in every single neighborhood in the state,” Bowers said. “Some say that’s not true, but that’s our interpretation of the bill.”
Senator Neal Hunt (R-Raleigh) said that the bill would ensure that property owners are able to do what they want with their properties, so long as it conforms to the zoning requirements. “If you want a pink house, but it conforms to setback requirements and height requirements, then you can build what you want to,” he said.
Responding to claims that the law would allow single-family homes to be turned into rooming houses, he said that rooming houses wouldn’t conform to zoning regulations and wouldn’t be allowed.
“The zoning ordinance calls a single family residence a single family residence,” he said. “It’s one family.”
Hunt said he doesn’t know why or where the bill originated, but that he agrees with the general premise.
“I do think that in some cases municipalities have been overly concerned about what someone does with their private property and I’m sure that’s where it originated,” he said.
However, when asked for examples, Hunt said he couldn’t think of any specific circumstances off the top of his head.
The proposal has some other direct impacts on the new zoning code Raleigh just approved.
The Unified Development Ordinance regulates a number of design elements for residential neighborhoods, such as garage placement and where main entryways can go. The law could prevent the city from making laws against telling developers where exterior doors can go or how to situate a garage in front of a home.
“The development community wants predictability,” McFarlane said.
Ben Hitchings, with the North Carolina chapter of the American Planning Association, said the new legislation “undermines these local efforts.”
“Communities across the state have different needs. What works in New Bern is not what necessarily works in Holly Springs,” Hitchings said.
Bowers said that the new zoning code allows for building decks and front stoops in the setback in front of a house, which varies from 10 to 30 feet from the property line depending on the district. Developers can build in those setbacks under certain conditions. If the state bills are approved, Bowers said, the only way to regulate in the setback would be to not allow anything in that area.
But, Bowers said, “That would actually take away options from developers.”
Bill proponents say there are bad actors in the state, Bowers said, but “the bill’s proponents have not found it necessary to give examples.”
Ariella Monti of the Raleigh Public Record contributed to this story.