A bill that would erase Dunwoody and Sandy Springs’ restrictions on wood-frame apartments awaits Gov. Nathan Deal’s signature after the state Senate passed it overwhelmingly March 19.

“I don’t think the governor will veto it,” said state Sen. Fran Millar (R-Dunwoody), one of the few to vote against House Bill 876. “I think the cities will probably have to bring a lawsuit regarding the constitutionality of it.”

State Sen. Fran Millar

Both cities have codes that require certain large buildings, especially multi-family housing over three stories tall, to be built of concrete and steel rather than wood for fire safety and quality reasons. The Sandy Springs version, passed in 2016, drew strong opposition from the timber industry.

State Rep. John Corbett (R-Lake Park), who sponsored HB 876, said the timber industry was influential in its creation. The bill says that “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.” Existing laws to that effect would be repealed.

The bill became a battleground between concrete and timber industry lobbyists. Corbett said codes like Sandy Springs’ are a “thumb on the scale” of the free market. City leaders hammered the bill as an unconstitutional fire hazard. A concrete industry group organized a press conference at a Sandy Springs firehouse where Mayor Rusty Paul and state Sen. John Albers (R-Alpharetta), who is also a longtime firefighter, were among the critics.

State Rep. John Corbett

But Corbett maintained that fire safety was not the crucial point, as buildings would still meet state fire codes. He won General Assembly support, with the bill passing the House 125-43 and the Senate 40-14. Three amendments failed: Millar’s attempt to grandfather the local cities’ restrictions, and Albers’ efforts to require “flame retardant treated wood” and to carve out an exception for construction deemed a threat to public safety or health.

Most local state senators voted against the bill, though Sen. Jen Jordan (D-Cobb County), who represents a large section of Sandy Springs, voted in favor. Jordan said she was swayed by the business-related arguments.

“Ultimately, my main concern about banning wood in construction came down to the impact on business,” Jordan said in an email. “With the imminent tariffs on steel, a ban on wood raises the overall costs of construction for everyone — businesses, buyers, builders, etc.”

As for fire safety, she said, any issues should be addressed by changes to the statewide fire code “so that there can be consistency across the state.”

Dunwoody Mayor Denis Shortal was among the local leaders expressing unhappiness with the bill’s passage.

Dunwoody Mayor Denis Shortal

“On behalf of the citizens of Dunwoody, I’m disappointed in the passage of HB 876 because it reduces the safety and quality standards for our community members in both residential and commercial spaces, as well as removes local control,” said Shortal through a spokesperson. “We are currently investigating all of our options.”

“It is obviously disappointing to see a bill pass in which minimum safety standards is the maximum allowed,” said Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul through a spokesperson. “Even more so, as amendments which would have enhanced safety were defeated.”

In comments during the March 30 City Council meeting, Paul also echoed Millar’s talk of a possible lawsuit.

“I’ve had a couple mayors reach to me and enquire if we were looking for partners in a suit,” he said, adding that the city legal staff will analyze the situation and consult the City Council about any appetite for suing. Paul said it’s “a little early for that [and there are] still more questions than answers.”

The National Ready Mixed Concrete Association also blasted the bill.

“Georgia state legislators made it clear … with the passage of HB 876 that they are willing to sell out the safety and security of their neighbors and communities for the sake of special interests,” said Kevin Lawlor of the association’s “Build with Strength” advocacy group in a press release. “Their recklessness in pursuing this misguided legislation will undoubtedly leave Georgia residents painfully vulnerable.”

State Sen. Jen Jordan.

Fire safety was the cities’ major debate point, but the politics are more complicated. Dunwoody passed its code in 2014 with an emphasis on safety, but also some talk about building “quality” and amid controversy that the effort was a disguised attempt to limit apartment development. Paul acknowledged that the Sandy Springs version, passed in 2016, was primarily intended to halt more apartments, but that fire safety has become a major concern since then.

Millar said opposition to the bill had a few political problems, including fewer votes from the Democrats’ Atlanta delegation than he expected and the various amendments clouding the issue. He said the fire safety heat also hardened the bill’s supporters.

“The problem is, when you talk about lumber not being safe, that doesn’t play well here in Georgia,” he said.

Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul.

The cities also argued that they have the right under the state Constitution to set local building codes. Millar said Sandy Springs City Attorney Dan Lee drafted an argument to that effect that Millar circulated to fellow legislators.

Corbett previously noted the Constitution in turn gives the General Assembly the power to limit those local codes.

“I will refer any constitutional questions to legislative counsel,” Corbett said, “and I would like to thank my counterparts in the senate for their strong support of the bill, and will be looking forward to the governor signing the bill.”

Update: This story has been updated with comment from state Sen. Jen Jordan and further comment from Mayor Rusty Paul.

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.