A proposed law that would kill Sandy Springs’ restriction on using wood to build large multifamily housing complexes is “disastrous” and would allow “cheap apartments,” Mayor Rusty Paul is complaining.

But state Rep. John Corbett (R-Lake Park), the bill’s lead sponsor, says the law would simply allow developers to be free to choose wood, which he said is safe for construction.

Mayor Rusty Paul.

“Nothing in this bill forces anyone to use wood. It just prevents them from prohibiting it as an option,” said Corbett about House Bill 876.

The wood construction proposal is just one of several filed or potential bills that could undo recent Sandy Springs laws, according to City Attorney Dan Lee, who said he’s concerned about a pattern of the state reducing local control. Others cover such topics as regulation of short-term home rentals, penalizing security companies for their customers’ false alarms, and banning the sales of cats and dogs originating in mass-breeding facilities.

In a 2016 decision popular with many residents but opposed by many industry figures, the Sandy Springs City Council adopted a new building code requiring apartment buildings over three stories tall or over 100,000 square feet in size to be constructed with steel and masonry rather than wood framing.

Previous code—which also includes hotels and condos—allowed wood-framing up to four stories, or five stories if the building had a fire sprinkler system, and steel and masonry for taller structures.

City leaders offered several reasons for the restriction on so-called “stick-built” structures. One is better-looking and longer-lasting buildings. Another is fire safety. Steel and masonry also costs more, which Paul has said might discourage infill apartment housing in the city’s “protected neighborhoods” of old-school, suburban, single-family homes.

The decision was strongly criticized by representatives from the development industry, who said it would make housing more expensive in contradiction of city affordability goals. Also in opposition was the wood industry, whose representatives said the material is a safe, sustainable, homegrown product.

House Bill 876 would kill the city’s code. Its languages says that “no county or municipality shall prohibit the use of wood as a construction material so long as such use conforms to all applicable state minimum standard codes and the Georgia State Fire Code.”

In a message on the “Sandy Springs Zoning Coalition” Facebook group Feb. 19, Paul said the city code has “ended all cheap apartment construction in Sandy Springs.” He said Fire Rescue Chief Keith Sanders and City Attorney Dan Lee testified against the House bill at a committee hearing, but that it moved ahead for a possible vote. Paul claimed the bill was created by the Sandy Springs-based Georgia Apartment Association.

“The apartment association’s bill is disastrous, since it prohibits local ordinances more stringent than the state’s MINIMUM code standards,” Paul wrote. That means all construction will be affected and won’t allow us to have more common-sense, higher-quality construction … This bill will undo all we have worked to accomplish and prevent us from stopping cheap apartments going forward.”

State Rep. John Corbett.

The Georgia Apartment Association could not immediately be reached for comment, but Corbett said that the “apartment association was never involved” in the drafting and only showed to testify in support. He said bill came out of recommendations from the House’s Rural Development Council, a group of legislators interested in policies that promote rural economic development. He indicated the timber farming industry was an influence on the legislation.

“There are 97 sawmills in Georgia [and] most, if not all, are in rural Georgia,” Corbett said. “Atlanta is an important downstream market for our timber farmers.”

Regarding Sandy Springs’ concerns, Corbett said the state already applies international building safety standards and emphasized the affordability of wood.

“The bottom line [is], fires in buildings with sprinkler systems are rare, no matter what type of material is used,” Corbett said. “By excluding wood, the cost of construction is increased from 30 to 50 percent.”

While Sandy Springs is concerned about the General Assembly reducing local control, Corbett suggested there’s a competing concern about municipalities affecting statewide trade.

“When government puts its thumb on the scales, it interrupts free markets and hurts the consumer,” Corbett said of the Sandy Springs code’s effect on the timber industry.

Meanwhile, Paul urged residents to complain about the bill to House Speaker David Ralston and Speaker Pro Tempore Jan Jones.

Update: This story has been updated with comment from City Attorney Dan Lee and further comment from Rep. Corbett.

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.

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