HANCOCK - Local homebuilders got an update on activity at the state level Thursday from one of those closest to it.
Lee Schwartz, executive vice president for governmental relations for the Michigan Association of Home Builders, spoke to the U.P. Builders Association members at the Ramada Inn in Hancock.
Part of Schwartz's message is to inform home builders about recent changes to the state's Critical Dunes Act, which Schwartz called "the most far-reaching changes in 25 years." In conjunction with realtors, the MAHB has been putting on two-hour informational sessions throughout the state.
Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette
Lee Schwartz, executive vice president for governmental relations for the Michigan Association of Home Builders, spoke to members of the U.P. Builders Association in Hancock Thursday regarding upcoming legislative changes.
Gov. Rick Snyder recently signed a bill loosening construction regulation for things such as homes and driveways in privately owned critical dunes areas. Critical dunes are judged to be environmentally sensitive or unique; about 55 percent of them are publicly owned.
The law also tightens restrictions on who can request a public hearing on construction in the dunes and blocks local requirements from being more strict than the state law.
Environmental groups have criticized the law for unduly removing regulators' ability to prohibit building in certain areas. But Schwartz said the new bill strikes an overdue balance between environmental protection and private owners' rights.
The state was successfully sued by private landowners seeking to build on their property in 2007. That led to several years of negotiation between the DEQ, home building and environmental groups on the rules before the legislative effort.
Schwartz said the Department of Environmental Quality had assured him an otherwise qualified permit applicant would only be denied on grounds of public interest in "an extremely rare occasion."
"The examples they gave us were exactly the examples that started the Dunes Act in the first place: You're going to destabilize a dune to where it's going to fall onto a road, or going to fall onto somebody's house," he said.
After sessions in Petoskey and Traverse City, Schwartz came to the U.P. His next stops will be in southwest Michigan.
Schwartz's other purpose is to talk with home builders in the area about local conditions.
"The reason I'm really up here is to talk with the home builders, talk about what's going on in Lansing, how that's going to affect them, what they need to hear from me and what I need to hear from them is what's happening here, what challenges are they facing and how can we help them with those challenges, etc.," he said before the meeting Thursday.
Schwartz is also addressing other bills now in the state Senate they support. State Bill 4561 would replace the current system of required updates every three years with the option of stretching the interval out to six if needed.
Opposition to the bill has mainly come from the International Code Council and from manufacturers of products used in code upgrades. The state spent more than $4 million updating the codes in 2009, the most recent code cycle.
"The codes more and more have become a vehicle for getting your product, creating a product for the market," he said.
Schwartz said his review of the 2003, 2006 and 2009 state residential codes, between 50 to 65 percent of the code changes were minor editorial, administrative or technical changes. There was an average of six substantive changes each year, none of which Schwartz characterized as "immediate, life-saving changes."
"When we looked at this, we said, 'This code isn't that broken. We're just churning to churn. It costs the state money, it costs locals money and it doesn't help public safety ..." he said.
Home building has surged nationally, with the amount of new construction reaching a four-year high in September. Schwartz said the same trend is being seen in Michigan.
Each home results in about 30 jobs of direct and indirect labor during the period it's being built, Schwartz said.
Home building has traditionally been a lagging indicator, Schwartz said. When the auto industry began falling, home sales continued to be steady; the same trend is now being seen in reverse, as the home market is following the rest of the economy in improving.
"We are seeing that recovery now, and it seems to be hopefully a sustained recovery," he said. "...We're now seeing that the permits are coming up - again, still not where we want to see them, but we're seeing some real activity, and it's across the board."