The negative reviews have begun for recent work by the Arkansas legislature, here on Strong Towns for Sen. Bart Hester’s new law that limits cities’ ability to impose design standards.

We’ve been consistently critical here of the ways that local regulations enshrine car-dependent development patterns, trap neighborhoods under glass, and prevent cities from evolving to meet their present-day challenges. We’ve been adamant that cities need to breathe and evolve and receive vital, even uncomfortable, feedback on what isn’t working—and that means not trying to impose too much top-down order on them.

For this, Strong Towns often gets labeled a “libertarian” or “free-market” advocacy organization. You’d think we’d be excited about a statewide rollback of meddlesome local rules on what can and can’t be built.

On the contrary, Arkansas just passed such a statewide rollback, and it is a terrible law. It is a textbook case of what not to do if you’re trying to fix housing affordability problems. And understanding why illuminates a lot about why “pro-regulation” or “anti-regulation” are far too simplistic stances for anyone thinking seriously about how to make cities stronger and more resilient.

Eliminating an Important Local Toolkit

The bill that passed in Arkansas, Act 446, targets local design regulations, and eliminates many of them. Specifically, the bill says that local governments, in most cases, may no longer regulate any of the following for single-family homes:

Exterior building color

Type or style of exterior cladding material

Style or materials of roof structures, roof pitches, or porches

Exterior nonstructural architectural ornamentation

Location, design, placement, or architectural styling of windows and doors, including garage doors and garage structures

The number and types of rooms

The interior layout of rooms

The minimum square footage of a structure

This is egregious because such regulations are often integral to tools like form-based codes that cities use to encourage traditional, walkable development patterns. These codes are the most promising alternative to the use-based zoning in place in most U.S. cities, because a form-based code emphasizes requiring a building’s physical design to “play nice” with its surroundings, rather than micromanaging what can or can’t go on inside that building. Such codes allow cities to prevent the grave harm that a bad building can do to the public realm around it, while legalizing the kind of traditional neighborhood where you can walk to a corner store or pharmacy or to get a cup of coffee. These places are usually illegal today.

Put simply, design standards are often the most closely connected of all local building rules to the actual harms we’re trying to prevent when we regulate local development.

There’s more, including comments from a Fayetteville architect, Matthew Hoffman, who fought the law change, and a rebuttal to Hester’s contention that the bill is all about affordable housing. It also criticizes the limitation on regulation of garage door locations, a feature that can produce “snout houses” and other unfriendly alternatives to houses with porches.

The article notes that the home builders lobby, which likes to build as many cookie-cutter houses as possible with a minimum of hassle, backed Hester’s bill.

It’s a deep, long and thoughtful look at a topic that didn’t get exactly that kind of examination at the legislature.