Uniformity in jeopardy: League City’s building codes pre-empted by new state law

Under a new state law, cities cannot restrict materials are used to construct buildings, which has officials worried about the future aesthetics and property values of League City. (Jake Magee/Community Impact Newspaper)
Under a new state law, cities cannot restrict materials are used to construct buildings, which has officials worried about the future aesthetics and property values of League City. (Jake Magee/Community Impact Newspaper)

Under a new state law, cities cannot restrict materials are used to construct buildings, which has officials worried about the future aesthetics and property values of League City. (Jake Magee/Community Impact Newspaper)

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A new Texas law governing local building standards could have a lasting effect on the look and feel of communities, but League City is doing what it can to combat what officials call an unfunded mandate that erodes local control.

Under the new law passed in the 2019 Texas legislative session, cities are required to adopt the standard national code for residential and commercial buildings, which allows buildings to be constructed from a wide variety of materials and limits cities’ ability to enforce stricter standards related to building materials.

Only 14 votes in both the House of Representatives and Senate were cast against the bill, according to legislative records. Gov. Greg Abbott signed the bill into law June 14. It took effect Sept. 1.

Local builders support the law, saying it opens up new opportunities for builders and buyers.

“It ultimately helps homebuyers ... because they [will] have choice and competition in the market,” said Scott Norman, the executive director of the Texas Association of Builders.


But the proposal drew strong opposition from others. League City City Council approved a resolution opposing the law, and a statewide petition signed by over 1,000 planners and architects, including from the Bay Area, was sent to the Legislature in opposition of the law, said David Hoover, League City’s director of planning and development.

“We saw it as an absolute assault on home rule charter cities,” League City Mayor Pat Hallisey said.

LEAGUE CITY CONCERNS


Hallisey and several council members said they are concerned about the potential consequences of the law and how it takes control from local cities.

“It sort of robs every city of the individuality that they have,” Hallisey said.

Council Member Larry Millican said lobbyists persuaded legislators, allowing the bill to pass into law.

“I think it was a lame attempt by the building lobbyists to not conform to a lot of a municipalities’ regulations across the state,” he said.

League City’s masonry ordinance, which is now pre-empted by the new state law, required buildings to be constructed from brick, rock, stucco and other masonry-related materials. The ordinance exists because such materials are more durable to the storm-prevalent area and give neighborhoods and cities a sense of uniformity, city officials said.

“We don’t want cookie-cutter neighborhoods,” Hallisey said. “However, we do monitor the quality of what people build.”

Millican, who works in real estate management, is worried along with others that the law will allow the creation of eyesore buildings that would diminish surrounding property values. These could be metal commercial buildings constructed along I-45 or wood-frame houses in a neighborhood of brick homes.

“For us to not have the ability to [regulate building materials] anymore, it’s quite a deterrent,” Millican said.

However, League City City Council in September passed an ordinance to safeguard the city where possible.

“All we can do is make marginal inroads back against what’s been taken away from the cities by the Legislature, period,” Hoover said. “We can refuse to roll over and play dead.”

NEW ORDINANCE


According to the Texas Municipal League, private deed restrictions and homeowners association rules will remain intact despite the new law. These are two ways cities can attempt to continue to restrict what materials can be used to construct buildings, Hoover said.

City Council on Sept. 24 passed an ordinance that requires any future residential or commercial subdivision to have deed restrictions. Deed restrictions typically mandate minor things, such as where mailboxes can be placed or what colors homes can be in certain developments, but as part of the building permitting process, the city can encourage buildings be constructed out of masonry as part of future deed restrictions, Hoover said.

The city cannot force a development’s deed restrictions to mandate specific building materials, but at least the city will have a chance to counsel developers and express the benefits of constructing buildings out of masonry in hopes the developer complies, Hoover said.

“It’s not meant to be heavy handed,” he said.

Additionally, the ordinance requires any subdivided development with a common property such as a detention pond or a park to have a homeowners or business owners association established. This will provide the city the additional benefit of the HOA or BOA determining an entity besides the city that will be responsible to maintain common properties, Hoover said.

Not all council members agreed with the ordinance. Council Member Hank Dugie voted against it, saying while he supports local control, he believes more in property rights. Cities, he said, should not regulate buildings much beyond zoning and codes to make sure they are safe.

“We truly are experiencing a chipping away of property rights in League City,” Dugie said.

Originally, the city proposed an ordinance requiring HOAs and deed restrictions for any development with five or more residences. The council shot this down, saying it was too restrictive and bureaucratic in a city where many residents deliberately choose to live outside HOAs.

The ordinance change is not a perfect solution. For properties that do not require subdivision, such as parcels along I-45, a deed restriction would not necessarily be required, more easily allowing developers to erect metal or other “ugly” buildings, Hoover and Millican said.

“It’s a possibility, and I’d be shocked if somebody doesn’t do it,” Hoover said.

CAUSE FOR CHANGE


Supporters of the law, such as Texas Realtors, the Texas Affiliation of Affordable Housing Providers and the Texas Apartment Association, said it encourages overall competition in the market and works against monopolistic trends that favor some building vendors, such as masonry businesses, over others, Norman said.

“If you’re in the business of selling brick and the only buildings built are brick, it’s good for brick business,” Norman said.

Requiring use of certain materials, including brick and other masonry-related materials, can lead to higher costs, which makes houses more expensive for buyers. Builders said the new law will lead to cost savings that could be passed onto buyers.

“When you take some of these tools out of the toolbox for builders, it really starts severely impacting affordability,” said Bradley Pepper, the director of government affairs for the Greater Houston Builders Association. “There’s a regionwide issue with housing affordability, and so something like this that goes to the bottom line of the affordability is what it is targeted to address.”

However, Bruce Race, a University of Houston architecture professor with experience in community design, said the new law may not result in true savings on new construction.

“There’s just so many things I would be focused on before I started to look at the $900 I saved between brick and HardiePlank,” Race said, referring to a brand of siding. “One could make the argument, but I’m also wondering if that’s not just $900 that goes into a builder’s pocket and then the family has to tear the siding off in 20 years and do it again.”

Hoover agreed using different materials will not save homebuyers money. If homes become cheaper to construct, developers and builders will pocket the difference and increase their profit margins, not pass the savings onto customers, he said.

The new law may grant greater stylistic options to builders and homebuyers, but there will be unintended consequences, Hoover said.

“It has a very real monetary effect,” he said.

Norman offered a more optimistic view.

“Cities have design standards, or they have a vision for the community or parts of the community,” he said. “I think the [law] will encourage more cooperation between the building and development community and cities in trying to adopt that vision.”

Ben Thompson and Renee Yan contributed to this report.
By Jake Magee
Jake Magee has been a print journalist for several years, covering numerous beats including city government, education, business and more. Starting off at a daily newspaper in southern Wisconsin, Magee covered two small cities before being promoted to covering city government in the heart of newspaper's coverage area. He moved to Houston in mid-2018 to be the editor for and launch the Bay Area edition of Community Impact Newspaper.

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