Northern Virginia county and city officials Thursday blasted provisions of a proposed new statewide building maintenance code, charging that the code is too broad and lacks specific language that urban jurisdictions need to ensure public health and safety.
Local fire and safety officials also attacked a proposed statewide fire code because they said they feared it might limit their ability to act in emergency situations.
Alexandria officials told leaders of the Virginia Board of Housing and Community Development they "would like to see specifics of what we can and what we cannot do" in a maintenance code.
Local enforcement officials said they recognized problems in developing maintenance and fire codes that can best serve both the rural and urban parts of the state.
The Virginia General Assembly gave the Virginia Board of Housing and Community Development authority to draw up a maintenance code last year. The board has held public hearings across the state during the past year, but many local code enforcement officials have complained that they did not see a copy of the code draft until this summer.
Local code enforcement officials have said the proposed code would affect Northern Virginia and other urbanized areas of the state the most because those jurisdictions are more likely to have tougher local maintenance codes that would be preempted by the proposed weaker statewide code.
Neal J. Barber, acting director of the state board of housing and community development, met with members of the Virginia Building Officials Association's Northern Virginia chapter in Manassas. He acknowledged that his office's efforts to create statewide maintenance and fire codes have triggered strong reactions from the building industry and government officials across the state.
"I am trying to more clearly identify local concerns so that I can convey them" to members of the full board, he said. That board is scheduled to meet Monday in Richmond to discuss proposed new codes, but officials predict that final documents will not be approved for several months.
Building code enforcement officials from Alexandria, Fairfax and Prince William, Manassas Park, Arlington and other jurisdictions attended Thursday's session.
Prince William County assistant attorney Sharon E. Pandak said she was not sure the new code would allow her jurisdiction to force alterations and repairs of rental buildings. She questioned the legal implications of the proposal because it fails to spell out exactly what local governments can do. She said she felt courts would not allow local governments to do anything "more than the code specifies."
James Bowman, who enforces housing, hygiene and other programs in Fairfax, said "the legislative mandate was that you must follow the national maintenance code." He said proposed codes do not follow "national codes" and now have produced "a set of standards that will not address urban needs."
Barber said the state housing staff working on the proposals "has taken a narrow, traditional, conservative view" of what should be in the code.
"What you are saying is that building regulations should deal with the question of habitation," he said.
Michael A. Conner Sr., deputy code enforcement administrator and fire marshal for Alexandria, said the flexibility those promoting the new code are touting actually hampers what Alexandria might be able to do in the future. Other officials questioned what would happen to that city's present right to inspect the inside of rental units for health and safety reasons.
Alexandria fire chief Jim Hicks said he needs tough language to enforce fire code violations and the power to order buildings evacuated in case of an emergency. He said he was not sure that he would have had the authority to order people out of a high-rise condominium building filled with potentially toxic fumes this week if the new codes had been in place.
Conner said the proposed fire code has conflicting sections regarding punishments for fire code violations. He said one section says such violations are punishable only by fines while another says that uniformed fire personnel can make arrests if necessary. Attorneys attending the meeting questioned the legality of such arrests unless possible punishments for violations included jail terms.
"We have to have the authority to act when we have a life-threatening situation," Hicks said.
Local leaders suggested that some legal questions surrounding the new code be reviewed by the state attorney general.
In drafting the new code, the state board essentially deleted any existing requirement that goes beyond maintaining building structures from a model code recommended by the Building Officials and Code Administrators International Inc., a nationally known group.
Deleted from the text of the model were numerous prohibitions and requirements designed to protect the safety of housing occupants, especially tenants in rental units, or ensure the maintenance of buildings. For example, the board deleted prohibitions against the use of lead-based paint, restrictions on crowding too many people into a single living unit and prohibitions against having open fires or junk cars on premises. In rural areas, outhouses would be allowed.
The board also deleted requirements that landlords control rats and pests, provide window screens and remove trash from buildings and provide garbage cans. The requirement that rental properties be heated to 68 degrees was lowered to 65 degrees.
The proposed code has been supported by building industry officials from across the state, who have said they believe it is "a fair compromise" that will make property management easier.
A group of citizens in Northern Virginia, called Virginians for Safety and Health, has launched a campaign to stop adoption of the code as proposed. At a press conference held by the group last week, chairman Philip Chabot called the proposed code "a step backward."