Sandy Springs City Council on Aug. 16 adopted a “higher-quality” code that requires more apartment buildings to be built with steel and masonry rather than wood.
The unanimous approval came over objections from development and wood industry advocates that left city officials—including Mayor Rusty Paul, whose family is in the tree-farming business—protesting that they are “not discriminating against wood.”
The code change requires 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—allows wood-framing up to four stories, or five stories if the building has a fire sprinkler system, and steel and masonry for taller structures.
The change became effective immediately. But it does not apply to any project filed earlier as long as it gets a building permit within six months. The code change required review from the state, which had no objection or comment, according to Assistant City Manager Jim Tolbert.
The move to reduce wood-framed, or “stick-built,” apartments has several motives as described by city leaders. 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.
Opponents speaking before the vote included Michael Paris, president and CEO of the Council for Quality Growth, a Sandy Springs-based developer advocacy group. Paris warned that higher construction costs might contradict the city’s policy goal of more affordable housing and offering a “full range of housing choices.” He said his group is “concerned some of those goals might be unattainable” and suggested that building quality be regulated through zoning rather than material restrictions.
“I don’t know what the problem is you’re solving,” said Sam Francis, senior director of National Programs for the American Wood Council, who came from Pennsylvania to protest. He promoted wood as more environmentally sustainable and at least as fire-safe as steel and masonry.
The code change “will not add to the safety and durability of buildings here in Sandy Springs,” said Matt Hestad, a spokesperson for the Georgia Forestry Association, who emphasized the economic importance of wood as a “homegrown” Georgia building material.
The mayor and council were not swayed.
“I don’t think what we’re trying to do here is solve a problem. I think what we’re trying to here is set a goal,” said Councilmember Chris Burnett. “We’re certainly not discriminating against wood.”
“It almost sounds like you all think we’re not allowing wood construction,” said Councilmember John Paulson, noting that the code change just reduces the requirement by one story. “It’s not as if we’re abandoning wood construction.”
The industry advocates were apparently unaware of Mayor Paul’s connections to the timber industry. “It’s not discriminating against wood at all,” the mayor said, describing the change as “a very narrow utilization and a very narrow application” and also calling it an “interim step.”
“I don’t think you’re going to be selling less wood products in Sandy Springs because of this ordinance,” Paul said.
There was some council controversy about allowing the industry advocates to speak at all before the vote, as it was not required under city procedure. City Manager John McDonough requested the public comment period due to a staff miscommunication with the advocates that they would be allowed to speak.
The council voted 5-1 to allow the pre-vote comments. Councilmember Gabriel Sterling said he voted yes out of a “sense of fairness…they have every right to be heard.” Councilmember Tibby DeJulio was the “no” vote, arguing that the council should have stuck to standard procedure in the interest of time efficiency.