The Virginia Board of Housing and Community Development has adopted a strict statewide building maintenance code for the first time, rejecting an earlier proposal that would have relieved landlords of responsibility for such things as trash removal and rat extermination while permitting outhouses and use of lead-based paint.
The unanimous vote this week by the eight-member appointed board formalized a tentative agreement made in September to adopt a tougher maintenance code than originally proposed.
The new maintenance code is nearly identical to a model code endorsed by Building Officials and Code Administrators International Inc., a nationally recognized group that annually recommends changes to all states to keep building codes current. It will go into effect April 1, 1986, unless the Virginia General Assembly acts to postpone adoption.
Officials from Virginia's urban areas, which had opposed the housing board's original draft, applauded the board's action.
"This is the first time we have not been fighting with them tooth and nail on this thing," said Erwin Jackson, a chief of the division of housing services that enforces building codes for Norfolk. "Four years ago we asked them to adopt the BOCA model maintenance code, and they finally did it."
The Virginia General Assembly gave the housing board the power to adopt a uniform statewide maintenance code in 1982. Since then, the board has wrangled with local officials and building-industry interests over provisions ranging from junk-car removal to requirements for screens on windows.
In drafting the new state code, which will supersede local building maintenance codes, the board originally proposed a version that would have set a relatively weak statewide standard. Northern Virginia county and city officials blasted that proposal at a public hearing last August, saying that the proposed code was too broad and lacked specific language that urban jurisdictions needed to ensure public health and safety.
The original draft was based on the BOCA model code, but with numerous sections deleted, including a raft of prohibitions and requirements designed to protect the safety of housing occupants.
For example, the board deleted clauses that prohibited the use of lead-based paints (and the requirement that a building 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 have been 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.
The board said at the time that it was trying to find a balance between the needs of urban and rural areas.
"In the case of the requirement for screens and windows, well, there are parts of Virginia where you're lucky to have a roof over your head that doesn't leak," said Donald Fall, a member of the board from Northern Virginia. "We try to eliminate things that dealt with aesthetics, that were not clearly black-and-white health and safety issues."
That proposal was supported by building industry officials from across the state, who said they felt the weaker code was "a fair compromise" that would make property management easier.
The housing board, however, smarting from criticism that it was dominated by the state's building interests and under pressure from numerous state legislators, abandoned its earlier proposal at the meeting in September.
The new maintenance code adopted this week, however, will not necessarily be enforced statewide. Local jurisdictions have the option to enforce only those sections of it they choose. They cannot, however, set standards that are either higher or lower than the uniform statewide code. Northern Virginians may see little change, as most of the jurisdictions in that area had tough local codes before the statewide code was adopted.
Gov. Charles S. Robb endorsed the board's tentative September agreement to adopt a stricter code in a letter to the board.
"I want to take this opportunity to commend the board for the thorough consideration that was given to public comments received relating to its proposals . . . for a building maintenance code," Robb wrote. "I have no objections to the proposed draft as presented and commend the board for its effort to address the concerns that were raised with the initial proposal."
The board also adopted several minor changes to the state's building code for new construction, but rejected a proposal to increase the number of units accessible to the handicapped to be required in new buildings.
Advocates for the disabled had proposed increasing from 1 to 4 percent the number of required handicapped-accessible units.
Robb supported the board's position not to increase that number, saying that "on the issues that have been presented surrounding the availability of housing for the disabled, I am yet to be presented with compelling evidence to indicate that the demand for barrier-free housing exceeds availability in Virginia."
The board had been prepared to adopt a new statewide fire code but tabled the issue at the governor's request.
Virginia's local fire officials have prepared legislation proposing their own version of a statewide fire code for introduction in the general assembly next spring.
Northern Virginia safety officials have attacked the housing board's draft fire code, saying it would limit their ability to act in emergency situations. The housing board agreed to work with the fire officials in reaching a compromise.