Restrictions on home building barred in Arkansas

NWA Democrat-Gazette/CHARLIE KAIJO Dennis Kronberg (center) of Wausa, Neb., installs refrigeration lines for air conditioning Friday on Passion Play Road, across the street from the Washington Regional clinic in Eureka Springs. Eight tiny houses are being built in Eureka Springs, which has a dearth of affordable housing. They're being constructed by 66 volunteers from 13 states with World Mission Builders. They began work June 4 and should finish most of the construction within a week. Then local volunteers will finish out the interiors and put shingles on the roofs. The first eight houses are part of what will be called ECHO Village. Plans are to eventually have 26 houses in the village. It's a project of Eureka Christian Health Outreach, which bought 10 acres for the village. The same group started ECHO Clinic in Eureka Springs in 2005. It provides free medical care to the uninsured and people on a low income.

A short-lived dispute in October over design elements for new home construction in Springdale resulted in state law on Wednesday.

The governor signed Act 446 of 2019 on Wednesday. The bill prohibits county and city regulation of matters of home construction appearance such as size, placement, and "architectural styling" of windows, doors and garages. It reduces a city's authority to set minimum square footage and standards for decorative building material, among other things.

"This grew out of the discussion of adopting such standards in Springdale," said Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs. Hester sponsored Senate Bill 170, which became Act 446. He referred to a packed room at an October meeting where the Springdale Planning Commission considered design standards. Other cities in Arkansas are also considering such standards, he said.

Those discussions never went anywhere, Springdale Mayor Doug Sprouse said Friday. He also said the proposal came up only because residents were concerned about some of the building material, such as vinyl siding, used in recent developments.

"The last thing we're going to do is hurt development in our city," Sprouse said. As for the new law, he is less concerned about any impact on building standards than he is the further "erosion" of local control, he said.

"This started because our residents had concerns," Sprouse said. "This was not a move against city hall. It was a move that limits the people who send their elected representatives to city hall."

Hester negotiated with the Arkansas Municipal League, an association of cities that opposed the bill when it was first filed. Hester amended his bill to remove the league's objections. The league never supported the measure despite the changes, he said. Sprouse, a former member of the league's executive committee and its immediate past president, confirmed Hester addressed many of the group's objections and made many improvements to the bill.

"I asked them what I had to do to get them to be neutral on the bill," Hester said, when asked how negotiation went. "Then I agreed to do all of them."

Amended versions of the bill show Hester allowed cities such as North Little Rock, which has already passed such standards, to keep them. The definition of "residential" properties to remain free from such standards was also restricted to single-family homes and duplexes.

All versions of the bill explicitly allowed historic districts, property owners' associations and subdivision covenants to adopt such standards. This creates a double standard, critics of the bill say.

Matt Hoffman, chairman of the Fayetteville Planning Commission, publicly criticized the measure as it worked through the legislative process. He objected to supporters saying the bill would lower the cost of affordable housing, arguing the act will do nothing to encourage more affordable housing while making any such housing built less desirable and safe.

He also noted the act denies the cities authority it grants to private property associations, historic districts and other entities tending to form in wealthier neighborhoods.

"SB170 is a real slap in the face to renters, a group that happens to make up a majority of citizens in the city of Fayetteville," Hoffman said earlier this month. "SB170 says that if you're fortunate enough to live in a historic district, or a neighborhood with strict covenants, you deserve to have protections on the quality of homes being built in your neighborhood. Everyone else is out of luck."

Mark Marquess is chief executive officer of Riverwood Homes in Fayetteville. He supported the bill. The kind of standards being considered in Fayetteville would have added thousands of dollars to the cost of any home and that would have affected the buyers of lower-priced homes far more than anyone else in the market, he said.

"I'm a firm believer in people owning their own homes, going from being renters to homeowners," Marquess said. "We are pricing nurses and police officers out of that. Fayetteville is an inclusive community, and being able to buy your own home is part of that."

NW News on 03/17/2019