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Builders sue over county ordinance

Are impact fees and design standards fair?

Are they constitutional?

Those questions are raised by the Homebuilders Association of Greater Savannah which is suing Bryan County over its interim development ordinance and the resulting impact fees.

The suit, filed Feb. 7 in Bryan County Superior Court, claims new design standards and restrictions on certain materials are wrong because they “will substantially increase the cost and price of homes in Bryan County in ways that are not rationally related to the health, safety or welfare of Bryan County residents, amounting to unconstitutional exclusionary zoning.”

The county responded to the suit Feb. 7, calling it unfortunate.

“It is unfortunate that the Home Builders Association of Greater Savannah have taken this approach but after receiving input from a large number of Bryan County residents, we undertook a process to strengthen our development codes and to reduce the property tax burden on current residents that can come from providing a sound road network necessary to accommodate the growth we are experiencing,” County Commission Carter Infinger said. “That process includes the development and implementation of an interim development ordinance and an impact fee program. Both of these initiatives were undertaken in a very transparent method that is consistent with state law and are commonly used by growing communities such as ours in the state of Georgia. It is evident that our efforts are in the best interest of current and future Bryan County residents in the context of providing the vital services that accompany a growth in population.”

In a Q& A sent out to area media after the suit was filed, the HBA singled out restrictions on the use of materials such as vinyl siding, the relative size of garages and the number of apartment units in a single building - the county limits it to six, the HBA said - while also requiring the apartments to have private gardens, yards, patios or balconies.

The HBA also said the impact fee, ranging from more than $3,100 for a home to hundreds of thousands of dollars for businesses, is unfair in part because such fees “exceed the permittee’s fair share of the cost associated with the new or improved roadways that are necessary to serve the new development.”

The homebuilders group claims the fees, which are meant to put more of the burden of paying for additional infrastructure on new residents, will be spent solving problems already here. The group said county projections of an 80 percent increase in traffic by 2030 aren’t in line with its estimate of 30 percent population growth over that period.

The HBA claims as well that “virtually all” the county’s roads were already “at or below minimal service levels” in 2015, three years before the ordinance was passed.

Homebuilders also say they weren’t allowed input on the ordinance and claim the county is attempting to exclude lower to moderate income residents. As proof, the suit said Noah Covington likened Bryan County to an exclusive club in which new residents, or members, are impacting it as they move in. “If you’ve got an exclusive club, sometimes you’ve got an initiation fee,” the lawsuit quotes Covington as saying at the commissioners’ December meeting. “And Bryan County is like an exclusive club. And if you want to move into our county and take advantage of our amenities and our school system, and what we have going on, then maybe you should pay an initiation fee.” Covington said later it was “simply meant as an analogy to what is going on” because of the rising demand for services caused by growth.

The HBA also reiterated that government shouldn’t tell people how they can build homes so long as those homes meet safety standards.

“The County should not be in the business of writing or enforcing design and architectural standards,” the HBA said. “That is not their expertise or their mandate. Their powers are limited to promoting and protecting health, safety and welfare. When they exceed their mandate, they take away the rights of citizens and start down a slippery slope that encroaches on our freedoms.”

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