A fight over local governments setting home design standards in burgeoning Northwest Arkansas entered the state Capitol on Tuesday.

Legislation put forward by state Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, seeks to curtail the ability of cities and counties to regulate elements of “building design” — defined as everything from the color of a home and the pitch of the roof to the style of windows — which Hester said is driving up home prices in Northwest Arkansas.

Hester, who is by trade a real estate developer, said his legislation, Senate Bill 170, stems from proposed rules that began to appear last fall in Springdale and Fayetteville, the region’s two largest cities.

In October, a draft of new standards that would have banned vinyl siding on single-family homes drew a packed house to a meeting of the Springdale Planning Commission, which ultimately ditched the rule, the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported. That same month, planners in Fayetteville tabled discussion on a proposed rule to limit the size of garages in certain areas.

“Things that should be left up to a homeowner based on what they can afford,” Hester said of such proposals.

The median price of a home in the Fayetteville-Springdale-Rogers Metro area was $179,900 in December, according to Zillow, an online real-estate database. Home prices in the region increased 9.8 percent over the past year, according to Zillow, which predicted prices will increase another 12.8 percent in 2019, three times as fast as Arkansas as a whole.

While Hester said he was not involved in any current projects in those two cities, he was accompanied to a preliminary legislative committee hearing Tuesday by Josh Carson, an attorney for Rausch Coleman Homes, a home-building company based in Fayetteville.

The hearing did not end in a vote on the legislation. The committee considering SB170, the Senate Committee on City, County and Local Affairs, will meet again Thursday for additional public comment and a possible vote.

Pressed by some members of the Senate committee, Hester said his bill was intended to cover ornamental and design aspects of homes, not their fitness for living.

The bill would prohibit cities and counties from regulating “residential building design elements” defined as exterior building color; type or style of exterior cladding material; style or materials of roof structures and roof pitches; exterior nonstructural architectural ornamentation; location, design, placement, or architectural styling of windows and doors, including garage doors and garage structures; the number and types of rooms; the interior layout of rooms; and the minimum square footage of a structure.

The language of SB170 includes an exemption for regulations related to “applicable safety codes.”

The bill also includes exemptions for regulations related to manufactured homes, buildings in historic districts and in central business improvement districts.

Hester found an ally in Sen. Stephanie Flowers, D-Pine Bluff.

“I’m really impressed by your advocacy for poor and low-income [people] and housing for those individuals,” Flowers said. “I admire you for running the bill. It makes sense.”

Flowers, while expressing her overall accord with the bill’s intents, said that an exemption for cheaper manufactured homes, such as mobile homes and trailers, could deny relief to lower income home owners. She also expressed concern about the exceptions for renewal districts, citing such efforts in downtown Pine Bluff.

Democratic Sen. Keith Ingram, a former mayor of West Memphis, said he had broader reservations.

“Fundamentally, what this is about is taking home rule away from city government,” Ingram said.

The bill is likely to draw opposition from the Arkansas Municipal League, Hester said.

However, that organization’s director, Mark Hayes, said the league’s leadership was still reviewing the bill.

Hayes said in an interview that restrictive building codes were more likely to be found in private housing developments, which would not be affected by SB170’s restrictions on municipalities and counties.

“I’m not sure how that translates to us,” he said.

Hester contended that the bill would merely codify into state law the protections that already exist in the federal Fair Housing Act, passed in 1968.

Hayes, however, said Hester’s legislation appeared to be broader.

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Fair Housing Act prohibits housing discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, disability, familial status or national origin.

Hester said that the enforcement of more building codes would have the effect of driving lower- and middle-income families from the state.

A 2018 report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition found 49 affordable and available rental homes for every 100 “extremely low income” renter households in Arkansas. That report found that no state has an adequate supply of low-income rental housing, though shortages were generally worse in the Northeast and West Coast than in the South.

While Hester’s bill would mostly apply to new home building, the state standards regarding the existing housing stock — specifically units that are leased to renters — have drawn concern from some lawmakers and renters’ advocates in recent years. Arkansas is the only state in the country that does not set minimum standards of habitability for landlords, despite six different attempts to enact such standards since 2005.

Tuesday, state Rep. Jimmy Gazaway, R-Paragould, said he plans on taking up the latest effort this session to set standards for rental property.

“I think the idea is we should have certain minimum standards of decency in dwellings,” Gazaway said. Those standards would likely include working plumbing, roofs without leaks, and working air conditioning and heating, he said.

Information for this article was contributed by Ginny Monk of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazetteand Stacy Ryburn and Laurinda Joenks of the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

A Section on 01/30/2019