Building codes: Examine the facts

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By BRENT REGAN

Special to The Press

When the county commissioners suggested that a property owner may be given the option of using the county to verify building code compliance, people started losing their minds. The fear mongering was cranked to 11 and all kinds of ridiculous claims were presented. Good policy rarely results from bad information so let’s examine the facts.

Presently if you want to build or significantly remodel a structure larger than 200 square feet you need to take your checkbook to the community development department where three things will happen. First, your project will be reviewed for compliance to the zoning ordinance (type, setback, height, etc.) and you’ll pay a fee based on the value of the project.

Second, the plans are reviewed for structural and compliance to the current building codes.

Third, the structure itself is inspected during construction for compliance to the building codes. At the end of the process the owner is issued a Certificate of Occupancy.

Even though the county has reviewed the plans and inspected the construction, the owner has no recourse if the county makes and error or omission. If the county makes a mistake or misses a key structural component and the building collapses (it has happened) the owner better have insurance because the county can’t be held liable.

If, on the other hand, you hired a licensed engineer and a private code compliance inspector and they made a mistake then you would have legal recourse and they likely have insurance for just such an occurrence.

Commissioner Eberlein’s proposal to have a simplified site only permit option, with the owner taking responsibility for code compliance, would allow a small portion of the massive burden of regulation to be moved from “REQUIRED” to “Optional”. This ONLY applies to property owners in the rural area who wish to improve their own property. Electrical, plumbing, HVAC and fire requirements and state permits remain unchanged. Contractors would still need formal inspections. Making county verified code compliance an option for the land owner is good policy.

Presently if an owner/builder wishes to erect a pre-engineered, pre-fabricated steel building they must still incur the costs and delays of having the engineered plans AGAIN reviewed and the building inspected. This adds no value or safety to the structure. Plan checks and inspections are currently required even when not needed.

If a person wants to buy some land and clear a home site of trees and then mill those trees into lumber, they can’t use that lumber in their county permitted home because it isn’t stamped by a lumber inspector.

By forcing the property owner to use the county’s code compliance verification the county is exposing the property owner to an uninsured liability because the county can’t be sued when they make a mistake.

The landowner should have the authority and responsibility of determining code compliance. The county should offer the service of verifying code compliance as an option to the landowner. The landowner should also have the option of using a professional inspector with an appropriate license. Also, if the landowner is knowledgeable they may wish to do their own inspections to verify code compliance. Of course there would be no legal recourse if they made a mistake, but that is exactly the situation now.

There are multiple advantages to Commissioner Eberlein’s proposal:

1. The owner/builders in the unincorporated areas of Kootenai County would have the option of avoiding the cost and delays associated with the county’s process.

2. The landowner could hire a private inspector for timely service and have legal recourse if there is an error or omission.

3. Local area licensed professional inspectors would enjoy more business.

4. The burden to the taxpayer to underwrite inspection efforts would be reduced (yes, it costs more than the fees they collect so we are on the hook for the balance).

5. The citizen in Kootenai County would enjoy a little less government regulation and a little more privacy.

We all talk about reducing regulation and shrinking government. Here is our chance to make a very small step in that direction.

Some of the arguments against and for having the landowner responsible for code compliance include:

Home buyers need protections from non-permitted work done to the property by the seller.

EXISTING Idaho law Section 55-2508 requires the seller of real property to disclose “any substantial additions or alterations … made without a building permit”

Owner / Builders won’t be able to secure bank financing on properties without county documented code compliance.

There are many requirements that must be satisfied to receive bank financing such as credit rating, ability to pay, other indebtedness, and appraised values of the property. According to two local bank managers, county documented code compliance is not a loan criterion.

Even if this were the case, the owner / builder would have the option of having the county verify code compliance.

Also, it is not part of Kootenai County’s charter to ensure that residents qualify for loans.

Owner / Builders won’t be able to get insurance on properties without documented code compliance.

There are many buildings in Kootenai County that predate the adoption of building codes. They are not disqualified from being insured.

Buildings built without code compliance by the county will have inferior value and drive down property values, negatively effecting adjoining properties.

There is no data that supports this argument. Even IF it were the case, the county has no authority regarding the quality of an improvement that an owner/builder may make on their property. Can the county mandate the use of granite countertops or crown molding? These increase the value of the property, according to the assessor, and therefore the “comparables”.

There will be a rush of landowners building “Ziggy sheds” without proper water, sewer or power.

Currently in the unincorporated portions of the county there are many projects without permits. A small fraction of those come to the attention of the Community Development and are Red Tagged. These projects are done without visibility because the owners are unwilling or unable to secure the permits. This is happening NOW with the existing code requirements.

Having a simplified site only permit will increase the county’s visibility to these activities but there is no reason to believe that site only permits will increase off-permit activity.

Homebuilders, contractors and realtors are against this option.

Of course they are. The existing requirement that the owner/builder incur the costs of county verified code compliance, just like contractors have to, ensures that the owner/builder does not have a cost advantage.

County verified compliance to building codes is needed for safety.

Building codes are minimum standards. Compliance to them does not ensure safety or structural integrity. All roof collapses during the recent heavy snow winter occurred to buildings built to code (with only one exception).

There are many structures in the county that were built before the county verified compliance. Are those buildings unsafe?

• • •

Brent Regan is a Kootenai County resident.

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