Recently, I attended a joint meeting of City Council and the Planning Commission in Rock Hill, SC. This was a public meeting but not a public forum, meaning that only city council members and the members of the planning commission were allowed to speak, but the public was allowed to attend in order to listen. I was among the listening public. 

First of all let me say that the members of council, the members of the commission, and city staff were all friendly, polite, thoughtful, willing to speak their minds, and willing to hear others speak as well. Staff presented a lot of information clearly and in a succinct way, and people grappled with that information very openly and sincerely, but respectfully and serious to the matter at hand. There were frustrations, but they seemed to be at the difficult task before them and not at each other. It was good to see, especially in light of the seemingly crazy world we see on TV and Twitter. It was refreshingly civil in that sense. 

The topic of the meeting was the residential development standards for the City of Rock Hill. Apparently changes are being suggested by city staff in response to the expressed will of city council to explore and implement changes before the end of the current residential construction moratorium set to expire this summer (as I understand).

I’m not specifically familiar with the current residential development standards of the City of Rock Hill. Some in the room said that they are pretty good standards, but they have holes and can be improved. Some in the room were shocked to learn of some of the more specific requirements that already exist. Many around the table nodded when someone said that these changes are basically arising as a reaction to larger builders having an increasingly voracious appetite for residential development in and around the city. Council expressed that they feel the need to guard against such developments as are specifically and strategically designed to be as inexpensive to build while as expensive to buy as possible, creating the least quality product that can be gotten away with (by the code, the standards, and the marketplace). 

It’s apparent to me that the whole endeavor of having and iterating these development standards is well-intended and based on a sincere desire by council for a positive quality of life and value of property overtime and for the good of the city as a whole. I will say, though, that the urgency for these specific changes seems self-created. And most importantly I’d say, the general approach to the requirements (which is presumably a normal one among municipalities) seems misguided from the start. I mean this as a critique of process not a criticism of the people involved. The people involved are using the process before them. But the overall perspective and approach of the process as a whole could be done in a different way and achieve better outcomes in the products (the houses), for the community, and in the application of government as a model of operating. 

To illustrate my point, some of the changes being suggested currently in Rock Hill are way down the latter of specifics, such as dictating that each residence has a two-car garage with doors that are painted a neutral color and have windows in them. That’s pretty specific for the government to be dictating, and it’s based on a collection of assumptions and opinions. It’s just not a good rule. But even more than that, such rules in general are not the best way for government to achieve the outcomes it is charged with achieving (a quality community that stands the test of time). 

Council should focus not on dictating the features of what is built, but instead on creating the outcomes that are desired.  Council should be setting standards that determine if residential construction, in each case, is good for the community now and in the long term. They should be asking questions of a builder like: Are these homes being built to last? Will they grow in value? Do they add value to the immediate community? Do they detract from the experience of or value of something around them? Do they enhance and provide a quality of life experience for those who occupy them? Do they allow for and enhance safety for occupants and neighbors? Are they sustainable and eco-positive ongoing? Do they add to overall community connectivity? Do they positively contribute to the overall growth of wealth for the community as a whole? Are they good for the children? And so on.

These are the questions that council should be asking of builders. Not questions like: Is there stone on the face of the building? Is the garage set back 24” from the face? Yes, those details should be required from the builder of course, but the builder should provide such details in the context of answering those outcomes-based questions – making their individual argument so to speak. The specifics of the features themselves should not be dictated, only that they combine to meet the outcomes desired. 

Such a model allows for innovation from the private sector while government can stay focused on what is really important – the overall outcome of developing a quality, successful, and equitable community over the long haul. The current process has council in a reactive state to the market and staff in a reactive state to council, all just to create more and more specific rules in response to the bad things that get through. While these new rules address past mistakes, they have unintended negative consequences, in which case we are designing undesirable outcomes into our policies from the start. 

For example, one residential development requirement being suggested is that the first phase of any development be a minimum of 100 houses. This is being suggested to combat experiences where the city has invested in infrastructure to only serve a small amount of people in neighborhoods that slowed their development due to market pressures and left the community sparsely developed for years. But, the unintended consequence of requiring 100 homes in the first phase is that such a rule makes it so that only large builders can even afford to build in the first place – the very builders that the city is reacting against. With this requirement, we are designing out the ability for someone local to develop a small, excellently designed development, and we are writing in a future with more of the very builders we see as detached from the community and contributing to negative outcomes.

So what if the standards looked less like a list of specific features and more like a list of specific outcomes-based questions that had to be answered with supporting details. What if it looked more like this (over-simplified here for example sake):

Dear Builder,

Please answer the following questions and provide ample documentation to support your answer for each. 

For each structure, 

  • Is the structure safe for the planned occupancy and use?
  • Is it constructed in a manner that will last 100 years and beyond? 
  • Will the changes to the property increase the property’s value and that of the property around it?
  • Is the structure and affected property designed to be sustainable and efficient in its utilization of resources including but not limited to the use of property, electricity, water, sewer, and provided services?
  • Does the affected property allow for safety services, and does it in any way inhibit the providing of those services to surrounding properties?
  • How will the occupants of the home manage the storage of their automobiles and what impact will their automobiles and those of their visitors have on the immediate environment?
  • How will traffic in the immediate vicinity be affected?
  • Is the structure significantly different architecturally than the structures around it? If so, how is this of benefit to the surrounding community?

And so on…

The process would be that the builder would answer each outcomes-based question by supplying as much detail as they have on the specific features of what they are creating – how large the columns, how tall the foundation, if there is a garage and what it looks like, and so on. There would be requirements for all of the documentation that must be submitted, but not specific requirements on the features of what is being built. There would be as few as possible predetermined specifics on features, such as items that are concerned with the physical stability of the structure (building codes, essentially). The rest of the features are up to the design presented by the builder.

In such a model, the builder would be provided a “Requirements and Guidelines” document that details any specific requirements (which would be few) and then general guidelines around what is expected in the form of outcomes-based questions. The builder is free to design whatever they want, but they must demonstrate that their project leads to the desired outcomes to get approval. This is actually what is happening in Rock Hill anyway, as the building standards are not followed as it is now. Instead, developers submit a masterplan, which then has to be reviewed by council and approved on its own merit.

Actually, part of council’s motivation here, it seems, is to cut down on the amount of master plans that are submitted. One person said, “We don’t need to be reviewing all of these details for every development. We need to have standards, and builders need to build to those standards.”

I think what they are feeling when they express this desire is that they are not working at the right level of operations when they are determining all of these specific features of home designs while working with a masterplan. It’s not the role of government to dictate design features, and they can feel that. But the solution of requiring adherence to a template is not a good solution either because it strangles innovation, leads to homogeneity, and works to eliminate the presence of affordable housing all together.

Instead, council should be focused on the outcomes. Staff should be responsible that the builders show proof of what they present to council. And the private sector should be incentivized to develop all kinds of innovative features that lead to positive community outcomes and an evolving, improving community. 

To make this change in how city council and city staff approach residential development standards would have a profound impact on the future of the city. It’s not just semantics. It’s a paradigm shift in the role of government. It’s also an unwinding of a hodgepodge of rules added reactively overtime.

Though the current players of council and planning are well-intended, smart, and serious, the negatives of the status quo are significant in disallowing innovation in residential development, and the current move to increase the specificity of the development standards as they exist is just a doubling-down on what we have as an attempt to prevent more of what we got. We need to change our approach, and that will improve our outcomes.