As time runs out, new rules still in draft form
According to state law, all North Carolina towns and counties had to switch over to the 2012 building code for residential housing inspections as of March 1. The problem is that a draft of the building code wasn’t completed until Tuesday, Feb. 28 and a final, printed version could a month or more away. With more than 25 pages of changes from the 2009 code, that leaves inspectors with no clear direction as to what is or isn’t acceptable in home construction.
In Union County, towns are handling the confusion in different ways.
“I got it at 11:30 a.m today (and) I can’t tell you what’s in it,” Waxhaw building inspector William Whaley told his town council Tuesday night, of the draft. “To be asked to enforce it Thursday morning, I’m gonna make a mistake.”
Even after the final version of the codebook is delivered, Whaley said, it will be months before all the errors, grammatical and otherwise, are corrected. Until he gets a copy of the book from the state, Whaley asked Waxhaw commissioners to put a moratorium on new building permits.
“I’ve been doing this for 30 years,” Whaley said. “A codebook has to be there, because there’s no way you can remember every detail.”
Some towns across the state like Boone and New Bern have issued moratoriums, until the state delivers a final copy. The concern over possible mistakes is heightened in Union County, as the county itself faces a lawsuit over missed violations. State investigators found that Union County building inspectors missed more than 40 code violations when they signed off on the home of Heather and Lee Henage.
There were no support piers under some of the home’s load-bearing walls, including portions of the second story. The exterior doors were not flashed, and the windows not properly installed, allowing water to get inside when it rains. The floors on the first floor were not balanced properly, the roof rafters were not tied to the ceiling joists and the house was not properly anchored to the foundation, among other issues.
Inspector Greg Capehart turned in his license in August, before a state disciplinary hearing was to take place last September. The case will go to court at the end of this month. Also in 2008, Mineral Springs resident John Wentz also filed a complaint about the county department with the state, accusing the staff of negligence. Upon review, state officials found 11 violations, even though Capehart, the same inspector on the Henage home, had passed the home on final inspection.
With one county lawsuit already in court, Whaley suggested that Waxhaw didn’t need to open itself up to liability, having him inspect homes based on an incomplete code.
“I think it’s a tough measurement,” Waxhaw council member Sean Poccia said, discussing the pros and cons of a moratorium. “There’s Mr. Whaley not feeling comfortable professionally, there’s the socialization of the 2012 building codes and then there’s the economic impact.”
Council members heard about the economic impact of a moratorium during public comments, as Lawson subdivision developer Stephen Pace spoke.
“My project, because of the sewer capacity and economy, has been absolutely in the pits,” Pace said. He asked that they hold off on any type of moratorium, as he believed that could affect business. “We’re starting to see a little movement. That’s a good thing. What I don’t want to do is stop that activity.”
By a unanimous vote, the council adopted a resolution, suspending all one and two family residential building permits until the final codebook is available. That doesn’t mean inspections will slow down over the next few months however. Anticipating the problem, town staff members contacted builders and developers in the area, asking them to submit any permits before the new code took effect March 1. Those permits would fall under the 2009 code. As a result, Whaley’s office has 89 residential permits sitting on his desk, enough to keep him busy for months. During a normal month, Whaley estimated that he handles 15 to 20 permits.
“On the one hand, we can’t pretend this doesn’t exist, (but) we’re limited in what we can do,” Waxhaw Mayor Daune Gardner said. “There’s still the obligation to protect our community.”
Nearby in Monroe, city officials believe they have enough information to follow the new code. After reading through the draft copy online, Chief Building Inspector Tom Brown sent an email to council members, explaining that the North Carolina Department of Insurance had provided enough information about the changes to the code that he believed it wouldn’t be a problem.
“City of Monroe Building Standards will enforce the code as mandated by North Carolina Session Law 2011-269 and will also make available to the public copies of the major changes in the 2012 Residential Code,” Brown wrote. “The NC Department of Insurance Engineering and Codes Division have provided some guidance as to how the code can be administered and how you can implement these changes on your own.”
The department sent out two documents, a 107 page list of the changes in detail and a 24 page summary. The majority of the changes listed in the 24 page summary deal with fire protection. For example, under the new code, each townhouse is considered to be a separate building, separated by fire-resistance rated walls, meeting the requirements for exterior walls. Also in homes, all concealed draft openings will be fireblocked, to form a fire barrier between the stories of a house, as well as between the top story and the roof space.
The concern in Waxhaw was due to the fact the changes are paraphrased, instead of specifically spelled out. With the additional 107 page listing, Brown said, the city of Monroe shouldn’t have a problem in dealing with the changes.
County officials also don’t anticipate any problems with implementing the new code.
“According to Building Inspections Director John Reavis, it will not be necessary to place a moratorium on permits,” Union County Public Information Director Brett Vines said. “We have placed a notice as to the effective date of the 2012 residential code and links to both the attached document and to the ICC website on the inspections section of the Union County webpage.”