Virginia housing officials have drafted a new statewide building maintenance code that would relieve landlords of responsibility for such things as trash removal and rat extermination while permitting outhouses and lead-based paints.
The Virginia Board of Housing and Community Development, which was given the authority to draw up such a code in the 1984 legislative session, is scheduled to vote on the proposals Aug. 19. Five of the eight board members are connected with the state's building industry.
In drafting the new state code, which will supersede local building maintenance codes, the board essentially deleted any existing requirement that went beyond maintaining a building structure.
"We tried to eliminate those things that come under the 'welfare' concept, keeping just those things that affect health and safety," said board member Donald Fahl, a building engineer from Vienna who works with the engineering firm Dewberry & Davis.
Northern Virginia government officials said yesterday the proposed state code would gut local maintenance codes.
"If this is adopted it would severely restrict Alexandria's authority to enforce what it believes to be acceptable housing maintenance," said William Pennill, director of code enforcement for Alexandria. "Nobody contacted us for our input and, from the response I've seen, 100 percent of the urbanized areas of the state are against it. It's outrageous."
John C. Drinkard, the state building code director and one of the key people who helped write the new state code, said he believed localities concerned about items not covered in the new code could include them in other enforcement codes, such as health and zoning codes.
However, city and county attorneys in Northern Virginia say that the existence of a weak, mandatory building maintenance code would statutorily undermine the authority of a locality to address such issues in another part of the city code.
"This, in our opinion, leaves jurisdictions without the authority to regulate facets left out of the statewide code," said one Northern Virginia city attorney who asked not to be named. "The only way to clear this up, if the code is adopted, is by going to the General Assembly or to court."
Building industry officials, however, say they believe the proposed new code is "a fair compromise" and that it will make property management easier for building management companies and landowners.
Virginia has had a statewide building construction code for several years. That code is updated every three years. Just this past year, however, the General Assembly gave the housing board the additional authority to write both a statewide building maintenance code and a statewide fire code.
The text of the fire code is still being debated, but members of the Virginia housing department staff said the construction code update and the new maintenance code are expected to be adopted in the form now being circulated for comment.
The board, which is appointed by the governor, arrived at the new maintenance code by deleting substantial sections from a model code recommended by Building Officials and Code Administrators International Inc., a nationally recognized group that annually recommends changes to all states to keep building codes current.
Fahl said the proposal was an effort to "reach a compromise between the needs of rural and urban areas."
Deleted from the text were a raft of prohibitions and requirements designed to protect the safety of housing occupants, particularly tenants in rental properties, or insure the maintenance of buildings and the areas around them.
For example, the board deleted clauses that prohibited the use of lead-based paint (and the requirement that an owner cover existing lead-based paints), crowding too many people into one unit and having open fires or junk cars on premises. For rural areas, outhouses would be allowed.
It also deleted requirements that landlords control rats and pests, provide screens for windows and remove trash from buildings or provide garbage cans. The requirement that rental properties be heated to 68 degrees was lowered to 65 degrees.
"In the case of the requirement for screens in windows, well, there are parts of Virginia where you are lucky to have a roof over your head that doesn't leak," said Fahl. "We tried to eliminate things that dealt with aesthetics, that were not clearly black-and-white health and safety issues."
Fahl admitted, however, that it was "clear from the public hearings that we may not have been very successful" at meeting the needs of both urban and rural areas.
Donald R. Slatton, executive vice president of the Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington, said, "We are adamantly opposed to any local option for a maintenance code. The new statewide building maintenance code deals with what is reasonable in more general terms. We think its the best kind of compromise they are going to get."
Slatton said that his group, which includes most large-apartment owners and building maintenance companies in Northern Virginia, has been involved in the writing of the maintenance code "since day one," and that it will stay involved until there's one on the books.
Samuel Finz, executive director of the Northern Virginia Builders Association, said his group had not been involved in the writing of the code but that it believes the proposed code "does not actually lessen safety standards, even though it has been made out that way in some areas."
He said, however, that he was not aware of most of the specific recommendations and if there were some that weakened the local maintenance codes in Northern Virginia, he would like to see them. "We are totally in favor of safety," said Finz.
Two members of the state board are members of the Northern Virginia Builders Association.
Fire officials in Northern Virginia said they also were concerned about the draft propoal for the statewide fire code, saying it, too, would seriously weaken local codes.
"This proposal would eliminate the requirement that party walls between town houses retard fire for any specific time period," said Fairfax County Supervisor Audrey Moore. "It would also eliminate what we call 'fire limits,' requirements that buildings in congested commercial areas have extra protections in case firefighters cannot get to the scene in time."
Moore also said that the proposed statewide fire code would make it impossible for local fire officials to arrest someone violating the fire code and would limit penalties to a maximum $1,000 fine. Many jurisdictions now allow fire code violators to be punished by jail sentences.
"The problem with the way Virginia is handling this is that if someone can convince the eight people on the board, it becomes law for the whole state," said Moore. "It just isn't fair to people who need more protections."