State Rep. Paul Ray

Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, sits on the House floor at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City on March 8, 2017. 

With the passage of House Bill 98, Kim Dixon, a member of the West Haven City Council, worries that the power of homebuilders, once again, expands at the expense of cities.

As she sees it, that’s the way the power balance has been shifting in Utah in recent years. “It just seems every year there’s a little bit more and a little bit more,” she said.

On the flip side, Rep. Paul Ray, the Clearfield Republican who sponsored the legislation, describes the measure’s passage as a victory for property rights.

“These cities for years have been telling people how to build a house,” he said. Now, the HB 98 provision prohibiting cities from requiring certain design elements gives builders and the people who buy homes more leeway in selecting materials. That, he argues, allows for use of more affordable materials and cheaper overall home costs as Utah wrestles with skyrocketing home prices.

HB 98 generated strong opposition from some municipal leaders across Weber County and Northern Utah. The cities of North Ogden, West Haven, Clinton, Kaysville and South Weber all passed resolutions raising concerns and objections with the original version of the measure. The Utah League of Cities and Towns took a neutral stance.

Whatever the case, HB 98 passed the Utah House and Utah Senate, though in split votes, and Ray doesn’t foresee opposition from Gov. Spencer Cox as it awaits his signature into law. The House approved the measure 38-30 while the Senate passed it on Thursday last week by a more comfortable margin, 23-5.

Likewise, though some city officials still have their questions, concerns and skepticism, they’re moving on.

“I still have my concerns. I haven’t changed my view,” said Ryan Barker, a member of the North Ogden City Council. He, like Dixon, is skeptical HB 98 will have an appreciable impact on lowering housing costs, as maintained by Ray.

Nevertheless, North Ogden officials are in the process of training more city staffers to help with home inspections in response to HB 98. The legislation allows homebuilders to hire licensed third-party inspectors to handle inspections if cities don’t complete them within the three days spelled out in state law. That’s been an issue in North Ogden in part because builders sometimes clog the inspection pipeline with multiple inspection requests on single dwellings, making it tough for the city to meet the three-day deadline.

Availability of homes, particularly affordable homes, is a big issue along the Wasatch Front and HB 98 stemmed in part from such concerns.

Aside from prohibiting cities from setting certain requirements on home design, like materials used, it gives homebuilders more wiggle room in the plan review and inspection processes governing home construction. If a city or county takes longer than 14 days to complete a plan review, the builder can proceed without it, per the proposal. At the same time, if a city or county takes more than three days to finish a building inspection, the builder can hire someone to handle the task instead, at their expense.

Ray said certain facade requirements set by cities can really add to a home’s cost and he suggested that locales sometimes include such guidelines deliberately to restrict who can move in. The HB 98 provision removing that sort of requirement will help keep home costs in check, he argues. Cities set certain requirements “to keep low-income people out of their cities, which is illegal,” he said.

Dixon questions whether the measure will reduce housing costs, however. State officials, she maintains, will talk about affordable housing given its omnipresence as an issue to bolster the case for whatever measure they’re touting when in reality the proposal may have nothing to do with moderately priced homes.

Barker is also skeptical HB 98 will cause housing costs to go down, saying market forces are a bigger factor in skyrocketing housing costs in Utah. North Ogden guidelines prohibit vinyl siding on new homes, for instance, and he thinks removing that guideline, resulting in more homes with such siding, will only have the effect of reducing the value of adjacent homes.

“I don’t see housing prices dropping because there’s more vinyl siding,” he said.

Hayley Alberts, a member of the South Weber City Council, worries about the change in HB 98 letting homebuilders bypass followup plan reviews of homes they’re building, even if problems show up in initial plan reviews. There’s no accountability to make sure builders address the issues brought up in plan reviews, and that concerns her.

Ray heads the Northern Wasatch Association of Homebuilders, which has raised eyebrows from some HB 98 critics, like Alberts, who see his connection to builders and the housing industry as a conflict of interest. Ray says he doesn’t build homes, won’t make any money off of changes brought on by HB 98 and rebuffed the criticism.

Contact reporter Tim Vandenack at tvandenack@standard.net, follow him on Twitter at @timvandenack or like him on Facebook at Facebook.com/timvandenackreporter.

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