Georgia Governor Signs Bill Protecting Wood Use in Taller Buildings

CodeWatcher Georgia Tall Wood Buildings

You can’t prohibit the use of wood as a construction material, says Georgia governor.

HB 876 has created quite a controversy, and one that is not likely to go away anytime soon. In early May, Governor Deal signed the one page bill into law, with an effective date of July 1. At the root of the argument is the following provision: “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.”

The Cities of Dunwoody and Sandy Springs had passed, in 2014 and 2016 respectively, ordinances that required buildings more than three stories tall or over 100,000 square feet in total size to be framed with non-combustible materials such as metal and/or concrete. In the case of Sandy Springs, the ordinance applied to apartment buildings and even had the support of the Mayor, whose family is in the tree-farming business.

Sandy Springs cited 3 main reasons for the ordinance: better-looking and longer-lasting buildings, fire safety and the discouragement of infill apartment buildings. While the 1st reason is dubious at best and the 3rd reason is simply an anti-growth tactic, the 2nd reason does have merit but is limited in scope.

Some opponents of HB 876 cited recent hurricanes in their arguments. No one ever mentioned increased insurance rates or the insolvency of the National Flood Insurance Program, a federal program with local ramifications. But in the span of 3 months, HB 876 went from introduced on the floor of the House to signed into law.

5 https://legiscan.com/CA/text/AB1668/2017

7 https://www.reporternewspapers.net/2016/08/23/sandy-springs-adopts-higher-quality-apartment-materials-requirement/

The state law will repeal the local ordinances once it goes into effect.Mayors from six communities (including Dunwoody and Sandy Springs) met in late March, shortly after
HB 876 passed the Senate, to formulate a plan to nullify the bill’s effect. Their first plan of action was to ask the Governor to veto the bill. That didn’t work, so another option on the table is to file a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the bill.

The big issue here is local control. Georgia is a home rule state. And the irony here is that seven Republicans, belonging to a political party that typically advocates for both free trade and smaller government, favored the former, eschewed the latter and backed HB 876. The other major factor was the timber industry, which is very persuasive in Georgia. In fact, State Rep. John Corbett, one of the bill’s co-sponsors, admitted “the timber industry was influential in its creation.”

The vote wasn’t completely along party lines, however. State Sen. Jen Jordan, a Democrat who represents an area of Georgia largely opposed to the legislation, said, “With the imminent tariffs on steel, a ban on wood raises the overall costs of construction for everyone — businesses, buyers, builders, etc.” She also hinted that a change to the state’s fire code could bring the reversal that some still seek.

Charles Middleton, Savannah Fire Chief, indirectly agreed with her, saying, “My belief is that everything works better with everyone operating under one standard, statewide building code. I also believe that as changes become necessary, these changes should be reflected in the updated code.”

Mike Collignon is the executive director of the Green Builder Coalition.