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Edwards' affordable housing bill draws fire

State Sen. Chuck Edwards is direct and blunt when he defends a bill that he acknowledges is causing “heartburn” in city halls across North Carolina.


“We are in a crisis in North Carolina in terms of affordable housing,” Edwards told Land of Sky Regional Council members last week. “It is rare that I speak to any group of folks where I’m not asked, ‘What are we going to do about the housing in this state?’”
Edwards’ solution, which he says could make buying a home affordable for 1 million North Carolina families, is not going over well with towns in Henderson County or the North Carolina League of Municipalities.
The bill requires cities and counties to permit duplexes, triplexes and quadplexes in all residential districts, including those currently zoned for single-family homes. It also requires local governments to allow an accessory dwelling unit on a lot occupied by a detached single-family home and restricts local government’s use of conditional zoning.
“From the start to finish, SB 349 represents a broad and comprehensive attack on local land-use decision-making and ability of local property owners to weigh in on what is and is not appropriate development in their neighborhoods and communities,” the League said in an alert on the bill. The legislation “would obstruct the ability of locally elected officials to consider all interests when making land-use decisions, including those of existing homeowners and property owners, who stand to lose the most when incompatible uses are allow adjacent to their property.”
Edwards acknowledged to a Zoom screen filled with the faces of those locally elected officials that his idea is “a much bolder step” than local officials want to take.
“I think many of you are probably wondering what in the world is that guy thinking,” he said.
“There is just a severe shortage of places to live,” he said. “This drives the price up on every economic level of housing. At the same time that I’m aware of the shortage, that I’m aware of the prices escalating as they are, as I’m aware of the cost being shifted to taxpayers, I’m also made aware of the fact that too many times local government is getting in the way of offering affordable housing opportunities.”
He read aloud an email he received from a constituent thanking him for filing the bill, which is entitled “Increasing Housing Opportunities.”
“The local planning and zoning departments have become too controlling and restrictive,” the landowner said. “There’s a housing shortage in our area and it’s rapidly increasing. Yet, they make developers jump through ridiculous hoops. Our property rights are being taken away from us.”
Statistics compiled by legislative researchers suggested that larger single-family lots is an underlying contributor to the housing cost inflation and the shortage of affordable homes.
“About 75 percent of the residential land area in North Carolina is restricted to only single-family homes,” he said. “In one city, 84 percent of its land area was zoned for single-family homes.”
While a single-family home is affordable only for a family earning $57,000 a year or more, allowing more duplexes, triplexes and quadplexes could lower the bar to $31,000 a year. Under current zoning statewide, “We estimate that about 58 percent of North Carolinians cannot afford a home,” he said. By forcing local government to allow denser housing, “We estimate we can make home affordability options to about 1 million additional families.”
“We simply can’t continue to do nothing other than just acknowledge that there’s a problem,” he told the regional planning council. “We have to put forth some solutions. I know that this is a bold step, a much bolder step than a lot of local officials are willing to take right now. But we need to be looking for solutions.”

Bill would ‘undermine’ Laurel Park land-use code

The Laurel Park Town Council sent a resolution to the Legislature and to Gov. Roy Cooper opposing Edwards’ bill, which also has a companion bill in the House.
“We had a breakfast with Chuck Edwards and expressed our objections to what he’s trying to do,” Mayor Carey O’Cain said. The town is on the final lap of a zoning code rewrite that has been two years in the making.
“Basically what Chuck Edwards’ bill would do is undermine that whole Unified Development Ordinance,” O’Cain said. “We are not opposed to low income housing or more dense housing.”
In fact, the zoning rewrite designates a sizable chunk of land for residential zoning more dense than single-family, Town Manager Christopher Todd said.
“We’re creating a new district in this UDO, the Mountainside Mixed-use District, which will be more of the higher density residential running along U.S. 64 and the Ecusta Trail and as well we’re doing a Town Center District, which will be the highest density district,” he said. “As a percentage of housing in the last five years, we’ve probably permitted somewhere around 70-80 single-family homes but we’ve produced between Arcadia Views and Sunshine (senior apartments) almost 200 units of middle and high-density housing. We absolutely recognize and want to be part of the solution here in Henderson County and believe we’re making efforts to do so today.”
When O’Cain brought up Laurel Park’s concerns at a meeting of the Local Government Committee for Cooperative Action, Flat Rock Mayor Nick Weedman said the village, too, objected to the bill. Weedman later joined Laurel Park officials in meetings with Edwards and Rep. Tim Moffitt.
“We feel as though Tim is more amenable to changes but Chuck doesn’t seem to be as amenable to those changes,” O’Cain said.
O’Cain’s suggested compromise would be a directive from the Legislature that “each community handle this themselves” with the requirement “that they must do something.”
On some of Laurel Park’s smaller lots “a builder could plop down a triplex and it would be fine” under Edwards’ legislation, O’Cain said. “We have some very narrow roads. The density would not accommodate enough parking. We would have vehicles parking on narrow roads, making it unsafe for our fire department to get through…. We are very much opposed to this bill.”

Bill targets conditional use permitting

Edwards also defended the part of his bill that restricts conditional use permits, which have become a common form of rezoning by the Hendersonville City Council and Henderson County Board of Commissioners. That form of rezoning allows local government to impose restrictions on everything from lighting to noise to hours of operation to sidewalks and open space. One example locally was the county commission’s vote in favor of a 699-unit residential development on the Tap Root Dairy property, which imposed dozens of conditions on the developer.
“I’ve heard a lot of good arguments from folks on why conditional use permits are necessary,” Edwards said, “but I believe in just listening to builders and developers and property owners around our district and around the state, the original intent of conditional use zoning has gone well beyond what was intended.”
He closed his defense of the bill before the Land of Sky members by issuing a challenge to “all of you out there that are opponents of this bill. I offer you the personal challenge that next time you hire a policeman, a fireman, an administrator, a sanitation worker in your local government — if you’ll put them in a car with you and drive them inside the borders of your local government and help them find a place to live that they can afford based on the salary that you offered them.”