John Locke Update / Research Brief

Property Rights are Cool Again

posted on in City & County Government, Land Use Planning, Local Government
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This week, Carolina Beach’s Town Council met to discuss regulations on accessory buildings.  According to the Town Council’s own documents, the discussion started because “A few of the Commissioners had concerns that the regulations were too restricting in allowing property owners to fully utilize their property.”

First of all, let me stop right there and commend these commissioners.  Local governments (and all governments, for that matter) should be concerned about freedom and property rights.  Allowing people to do what they wish with their own property is pretty fundamental, so I commend any government that calls a meeting to discuss changes because they think the current regulations may unduly infringe on those property rights.  Well done, Carolina Beach.

Carolina Beach isn’t the first town to deal with these issues.  Over the past few years, similar questions have popped up right across the state in small towns and large cities.  But I think Carolina Beach offers a really positive, pragmatic way forward.

These “accessory buildings” are anything you might build on a lot in addition to your home.  It could be a shed in the backyard or a detached garage.  Many homes have these sorts of structures.  Where it gets interesting is usually when those buildings become “dwellings.”  The classic example of this is putting an apartment over a detached garage that can be used for parents, adult children, or guests.  The current Carolina Beach regulations don’t allow this because there’s a height restriction of 15 feet.  Carolina Beach staff, who prepared discussion papers for this week’s meeting, suggest increasing that height restriction to 25 feet.  This would prevent homeowners from building some sort of multistory tower in the backyard, but it would allow what most people want to do, which is put a bedroom, office, gym, or media room over the garage.

The other major issue is the footprint of the “accessory building.”  Currently, it can’t be more than 25 percent of the footprint of the primary dwelling.  On small lots, that’s usually not a huge issue, but on a large lot, it can be, and it’s caused homeowners to do all sorts of workarounds, like adding a deck to the main house, which increases the footprint, and therefore allows the accessory building to be bigger.  Rightly, the town’s planning director noted, “These additional steps property owners must take in order to work around the requirements add additional cost to the property owner” while failing to actually keep these accessory buildings small.  Consequently, the suggestion is to increase that limit to make it consistent with current regulations for commercial accessory buildings, which seems like a sensible solution

And then, there’s the most contentious part of this whole issue.  Should a homeowner be allowed to rent out this “accessory dwelling” space?  Could it be used for a long-term lodger?  For Airbnb?  For renting to students?

Staff is recommending no, that homeowners should not be allowed to rent out these spaces.  I think the other recommendations are pretty good.  This one is problematic.  As I said right at the beginning, local governments should be about protecting property rights, and allowing people to rent out space is an important part of that.

But even here, where I disagree with the recommendation, the reasons for the concern seem fair enough.  In particular, there are questions about water and sewer capacity, which is already approaching their limits.  So let me suggest this to Carolina Beach Town Council members.  Rather than restricting the rights of people to use their property as they wish, instead look at the infrastructure.  The town already expects to have to invest in increased water and sewer capacity over the next few years.  It’s the right time to do a major upgrade rather than a smaller one.  Will it cost more?  Yes.  But providing water and sewer is a core function of local government.  All over the state, towns and counties are building ballparks and megasites and offering tax breaks and cash incentives to businesses to try to stimulate growth.  I’ve argued against that time and time again.  But investing in infrastructure so a town can grow organically is a right function of government.  Carolina Beach should look for ways to make sure they can accommodate this kind of growth.

Particularly in a place like Carolina Beach, tourism is a huge economic driver.  Allowing an increase in these sorts of accessory dwellings will make it easier for tourists themselves to find lodging, as well as increasing the housing stock for temporary workers during the tourist season.  The town has demonstrated concern about property rights and a willingness to ease restrictions.  I applaud them for that.  They should also increase investment in infrastructure to allow property owners to fully take advantage of those lighter restrictions and to allow the economic growth they might spur.

Julie Tisdale is City and County Policy Analyst at the John Locke Foundation. Before coming to the Locke Foundation, she worked at the Centre for Civil Society in New Delhi, India, where she wrote about various economic and public policy… ...

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