Home under construction

Construction workers frame a house Tuesday at the corner of Cody Lane and Doris Drive, in north Denton. A new state law limits what cities can do to regulate construction materials used by homebuilders.

A new state law has stripped Texas cities of the authority they used to have to protect neighborhoods and, by extension, the investment individual homeowners have in their property.

The city staff is still trying to figure out the full impact of House Bill 2439 and another housing industry-friendly law, HB 3167, but the big picture came into sharp focus during a City Council work session Tuesday afternoon.

“These are bad bills for Denton and bad bills for the state of Texas,” Scott McDonald, Denton’s director of development services, told the Denton City Council during the briefing.

HB 2439 prohibits cities from adopting an ordinance that regulates building materials allowed in national building codes. For example, some fire-prone communities have banned wood shingles as a roofing material. But because wood shingles are allowed in national building codes, no Texas city can ban their use under the new law.

HB 2439 came late to the latest session of the Texas Legislature with wide support from the homebuilding industry. The law would address housing affordability, according to builders, who claimed that city regulation of building materials is contributing to the problem.

Brenda McDonald, the city’s land-use attorney, told council members there were much less heavy-handed ways to address affordability.

“I see this bill as a way for developers and builders to have leverage with cities in developer’s agreements,” she said.

However, HB 2439 doesn’t just affect the deals between cities and developers that bring new neighborhoods, she said. The new law affects existing neighborhoods, too. Lawmakers carved out some exceptions for historic and cultural districts already on the books, but no others.

For example, a property owner could erect a metal building for a home on a vacant lot in an existing neighborhood. As long as that building met national codes, the neighborhood would have no say because the city can no longer regulate building materials in that way.

City Attorney Aaron Leal said he suspected the building and development industry didn’t fully understand the ramifications of either HB 2439 or HB 3167, as municipal attorneys and other cities are still evaluating what the new laws do.

“[They were] likely adopted without an understanding of the statutes they modified,” Leal said.

HB 3167 requires cities to approve or disapprove property plats and plans within a certain time frame.

Cities opposed HB 2934 and pushed for Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to veto the legislation, but he signed it in mid-June.

Of Denton County’s delegation to the Texas Legislature, only state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, opposed HB 2439. Sen. Pat Fallon, R-Prosper, and the state representatives voted in favor of the bill, including Rep. Lynn Stucky, R-Denton; Rep. Jared Patterson, R-Frisco; Rep. Tan Parker, R-Flower Mound, and Rep. Michelle Beckley, D-Carrollton.

City leaders can expect to see ordinances soon meant to bring Denton in compliance with the law. In addition, the city’s planning staff and legal team will continue to evaluate the law and what the city can and cannot do, but those ramifications likely won’t be fully understood before Sept. 1, when the law goes into effect.

Mayor Chris Watts and council member Keely Briggs said cities could look at the cost of new houses and see whether HB 2439 truly brings down the cost of new homes over the next two years.

“Houses should become more affordable then,” Briggs said.

Watts said he doubted a city requirement that prefers brick over Hardie board, for example, affects the home price, but at this point the city could collect data on the homebuilders’ claims.

Meanwhile, some undesirable event will likely prick the public consciousness about the other impacts of HB 2439, Brenda McDonald said.

When the law is no longer an abstraction, but something that happens to a neighborhood, then the letters will pour into legislators’ offices, saying “you passed a law that harmed my property values,” McDonald said.

“Let’s see what we can do next session,” she added.

PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881 and via Twitter at @phwolfeDRC.

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