Friendswood reacts to new development requirements caused by House Bill 2439

House Bill 2439
House Bill 2439 affects commercial and residential development. (Designed by Elyssa Turner)

House Bill 2439 affects commercial and residential development. (Designed by Elyssa Turner)

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Friendswood planned on creating a cohesive downtown vision.(Designed by Elyssa Turner)
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Friendswood's downtown is disrupted by the new law as it lacks a cultural or historical designation. (Designed by Elyssa Turner)
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House Bill 2439 requires that cities follow national codes. (Designed by Elyssa Turner)
In areas such as downtown Friendswood, cities may determine they want the buildings to be unique and therefore pass ordinances to require a certain design.

However, House Bill 2439, which stipulates that cities cannot require development codes beyond the national codes for all new development in the city, changed that ability when it passed in September.

Brett Banfield, the president of the Friends of Downtown Friendswood Association, said he is concerned about how this will affect the development of the city’s blossoming Downtown District.

“It surely doesn’t help. It is another hurdle we have to get over,” Banfield said.

Development codes

Authored by state Rep. Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, the bill cropped up in response to a city asking for a specific type of brick from one builder to protect developers from such tight regulations.

However, it has rendered cities virtually powerless when it comes to planning the look of their city, Friendswood Mayor Mike Foreman said.

“We weren’t thrilled with House Bill 2439,” Foreman said. “It will hamstring us a little bit in our ability to regulate building materials.”

As cities cannot put language in their codes that circumvents the bill, the hope is that developers will understand the look and feel Friendswood hopes to achieve, Foreman said.

“Maybe it is optimistic to think this, but people come here, and they want to have successful buildings. I think they want to comply with the spirit of our original codes,” Foreman said.

As the bill dictates acceptable materials for commercial and residential spaces, several of Friendswood’s building codes went out the window when the bill was signed into law on Sept. 1, affecting those who signed a permit with the city after that date, officials said.

“I think it was an overreaching bill,” Council Member Trish Hanks said.

The national codes are the minimum requirements for safe development. Though the city wishes it still had control of the aesthetics, city officials are not worried that structural integrity and safety will be compromised under the different codes, officials said.

Friendswood had also previously prohibited metal, wood and cement fiber board in the commercial zoning districts, Harbin said.

Giving developers more options makes their job easier, said Bradley Pepper, the director of government affairs for the Greater Houston Builders Association.

“When you take some of these tools out of the toolbox for builders, it really starts severely impacting affordability,” Pepper said.

The city hopes the bill will reappear in the next legislative session, Foreman said. Until then, the city will abide by the law while still administering its preferences to developers, city Director of Community Development Aubrey Harbin said.

“At the end of the day, the city will comply with state law,” Harbin said in a written statement.

Downtown vision

Downtown areas are allowed to keep stricter regulations under this new law if they have a cultural or historic designation, neither of which Friendswood’s still-developing downtown has.

The city has been working on the downtown vision for a few years, as well as other commercial districts in the city, and now cannot dictate a specific style in the areas. While these changes will not halt work, it might change some of the direction, Banfield said.

“Not a ton of development is going to happen in two years, but some could. It could really have detrimental consequences for downtown Friendswood but also all of the downtowns [in the state],” Banfield said.

Development codes for the Downtown District previously included an earth-tones color palette; a requirement of certain building materials; and fenestration requirements, or the arrangement of doors and windows, with the goal of making the downtown a cohesive area.

The city made an amendment to allow cement fiber boards in the Downtown District to honor the city’s Quaker history previous to the new bill’s passage in June, Harbin said.

“Our main thing is to make it vibrant with a lot of activity—shops and restaurants and places for people to gather. To make it the heart of Friendswood and a place that represents Friendswood,” Banfield said.

Despite the new laws, work is continuing in downtown. The city received $3.5 million in grant money in September for street improvements to create a walkable downtown. The grant will fund sidewalks with brick borders and upgrade traffic signals.

Stacy Mendenhall-Parsons, the owner of Lary’s Florist & Designs, said she had a clear vision for her business when she built her new building in the Downtown District in 2018.

She was already planning to develop her building with Quaker-style elements and believes other businesses should follow suit, she said.

“What I wanted to do is set the precedent for what a small-town downtown would look like,” Mendenhall-Parsons said. “It would be cute and quaint. I don’t believe modern has a place in downtown.”

However, the city’s requirements for buildings in the Downtown District were challenging for business owners and developers prior to the new law, Mendenhall-Parsons said, as she struggled with window and door requirements, parking and landscaping.

“I want to understand that they want to have a certain look for Downtown Friendswood, but give people options,” she said.

Development and market trends

When Mendenhall-Parsons began the process of building a business in the Downtown District, the city was supportive of it, she said.

However, she lost a lot of her design due to not meeting parking and landscaping standards, she said. Because of this, the event center she had planned for was never completed.

“The whole process was beyond difficult. I spent $75,000 for an architect, and that building didn’t even get built,” she said.

One of the rules the city had prior to this law was for a certain amount of windows and doors on the wall of the building, which Mendenhall-Parsons said she believed compromised the safety of her building.

Banfield, who is also a developer and a member of the Friendswood Planning and Zoning Commission, said he is concerned the bill will cost developers who value their properties by allowing less aesthetically pleasing developments to be built next door.

“Good developers are going to build something beautiful, and anything can go up next to it,” Banfield said.

Banfield is the president at Banfield Properties Inc., which builds luxury senior living facilities. Banfield will own his properties for decades and invests millions into them, meaning it is important what is built next door, he said.

“You want those higher standards because it actually saves you money in the long run,” Banfield said.

Developers can come into the city and be attuned to the city’s desires, just as other developers are, Hanks said.

“We can just tell people the vision and what we are trying to do in the community and hopefully have people that are interested in doing that in a positive way,” Hanks said.

Jake Magee contributed to this report.
By Haley Morrison
Haley Morrison came to Community Impact Newspaper in 2017 after graduating from Baylor University. She was promoted to editor in February 2019. Haley primarily covers city government.