Bryan County and the Home Builders Association of Greater Savannah will be back in court May 24 in Pembroke, after roughly eight hours of argument and testimony May 10 before Atlantic Senior Judge Robert Russell ended without county witnesses being called.
Represented by attorneys Bill Glass and Keri Martin, the home builders filed suit against Bryan County in February, hoping to stop Bryan County from enforcing its interim development ordinance, which commissioners adopted in October, and its impact fee ordinance, which took effect April 1. They want the court to decide whether the measures are unconstitutional on a number of grounds. During a first hearing in April, Russell declined a request by the group to temporarily stop the county from collecting impact fees while the case is being heard.
And during one point in Friday’s hearing, attorney Aaron Kappler argued the home builders lawsuit, if successful, could put a temporary halt on all residential development.
One section in the interim ordinance opposed by builders, known as section 11, imposes various architectural requirements such as additional roof planes and setback for garages, as well as prohibiting vinyl siding. Builders say the standards add thousands to the cost of homes and will price moderate income buyers out of the South Bryan market. But Kappler said that should the courts rule in favor of builders and invalidate section 11, it will mean the entire ordinance will have to be thrown out. Because it repealed the previous ordinance, nothing would be left in its place, he claimed.
That, Kappler said, would be the same as “issuing a judicial moratorium on development in Bryan County.”
“There’s a saying, be careful what you ask for,” he said.
Also during Friday’s hearing, the merits of vinyl siding were given a good deal of attention.
So too was the adverse economic impact home builders say they and their customers will suffer if Bryan County’s interim development and impact fee ordinances stand.
Both measures could add anywhere from $20,000 to $30,000 to the cost of a home in South Bryan, a handful of developers and experts testified Friday during the hearing. That would push moderate income buyers such as the military, firefighters and nurses out of the South Bryan market, they testified.
Also at issue is whether developers of residential property are being singled out by the impact fee, since they’re the only group not allowed to apply for an exemption under the ordinance, home builders say, despite their meeting economic impact requirements requiring a certain amount of investment and jobs.
During Friday’s hearing, apart from an hour lunch break and an occasional stop for a breather and negotiations to “streamline the process,” as Glass said, court began at 9:30 a.m. and went on until after 6 p.m. and included testimony ranging from Matt Dobson, an official with the Vinyl Siding Institute to regional economist Dr. Michael Toma.
The founder of a website that tracks the real estate market and a forensic engineer from North Carolina also testified.
Developers, including John Mowery of Homes of Integrity, Fred Bricketto of Mungo Homes and Lamar Smith, who has several companies, took the stand to say the ordinances would make it impossible for them to build homes at a price that would sell at a price most people could afford. They also said the changes will cost them money they’ve already spent on engineering and will cut into margins that they said could vary between 4 to 18 percent.
At one point, Smith, who has built a number of subdivisions in Bryan County, said his projects have had a $250 million impact and seemed offended that the county had enacted its ordinances.
“It makes me angry,” he said at one point, later calling the ordinances “a bureaucracy” and “a cancer that will move to other counties, it’s ridiculous.”
As for the effort to “streamline the process,” developers offered to pay the approximately $3,000 per home impact fee if the county would agree to either hold the money aside until the case is settled or agree to pay it back if the county’s ordinances are thrown out.
Attorneys for the county, Frank Jenkins, Kappler and Patrick O’Brien, met with county officials, then turned the offer down in a process that happened at least twice.
The county maintains its interim development ordinance and impact fee ordinance targeting South Bryan development gives developers the opportunity to apply for exemptions and are within the community’s right to help manage growth, pay for road infrastructure and are part of its responsibility to residents.
At one point, Kappler noted one requirement would mean developers would have to build a second road out of a subdivision to ensure emergency vehicles would have access in case the other was blocked due to a downed tree, and questioned how that requirement was somehow a burden to developers.
The interim ordinance will be replaced at some point this winter, officials say, by a new ordinance.