The Virginia Board of Housing and Community Development has delayed adoption of a controversial statewide building-maintenance code after apartment owners complained to state legislators last month that they believe the tough new code would require expensive renovation of existing buildings.

Local officials and citizens groups who pushed for the code said, however, that the building owners have exaggerated the requirements of the code, and they called on the board to reconsider its decision to delay adoption of the code.

"This is the same old stuff that has been delaying this code for four years," said Erwin Jackson, a chief of the division of housing services that enforces building codes in Norfolk. "When they couldn't get what they wanted through the board, they went to the legislators. It was the only route left."

The housing board, which oversees housing policy, shocked local officials and tenants in Northern Virginia and other urbanized areas of the state last summer when it proposed a statewide building-maintenance code 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. That proposal was endorsed by the state's powerful real estate lobby.

The board defended its position at that time by saying that the statewide maintenance code, which would be the first in Virginia's history, should not be too burdensome for rural areas. Residents and tenant groups from Newport News, Alexandria, Fairfax County and other urbanized areas fought the proposal, however, saying that it gave landlords too many concessions and would undermine local authority to enforce stricter codes.

In November, the board rejected the original proposal and voted to adopt a stricter building-maintenance code, one nearly identical to the 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. Citizen and tenant groups, many of whom had pushed for adoption of the BOCA model code, praised the housing board's action.

Now, however, the board has voted to set aside adoption of the tougher new maintenance code until additional public hearings can be held on the issue of whether the proposed code would require renovation of existing buildings.

"We expressed our deep concern over the retrofitting because, in some cases, retrofitting is impossible and, in many cases, it is very expensive, and that would have to be paid for by the tenants," said Donald R. Slatton, executive vice president of the Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington. "We do support adoption of a maintenance code, but we oppose anything that requires us to retrofit existing buildings."

Slatton said that, as an example, his group believes the proposed code would require a building owner to bring an existing building up to the current building code standards if the owner upgraded any one aspect of the building, such as the electrical system.

"What that would mean is that, if you had an older building with seven-foot ceilings, as long as you did nothing to the building, you would be okay, but if you upgraded something, you would have to bring the entire building up to code, including raising the ceilings," Slatton said. "In many cases, that would be impossible." Building-code enforcement officials in some areas of the state said, however, that they do not believe the code would require such extensive renovations.

William Pennill, director of code enforcement for Alexandria, said, "We are not asking that the state adopt a code that would force apartment owners to make major renovations to bring their buildings up to the building code, and we don't believe the proposed code does that. We've been pushing to get this code adopted, and I think we need to get one on the books and then try to fine-tune."

Virginia Del. Alan Diamonstein (D-Newport News) said he asked the housing board to delay adoption of the code until additional public hearings could be held. "In dealing with some of the building industry groups and the public, I heard that some people had not been given a chance to testify," Diamonstein said. "I have not heard any objections to the delay."

The Virginia legislature in 1982 gave the housing board, which is appointed by the governor, the authority to write and adopt a building-maintenance code. Since then, the board has held a series of public hearings across the state and wrangled with local officials and building-industry interests over a variety of provisions, including junk-car removal and requirements for screens on windows.

The tougher version of the code was scheduled to go into effect April 1, unless the Virginia General Assembly took action to stop adoption of the proposal. Diamonstein, who is chairman of the House General Laws Committee, raised his concerns over the renovations in a letter to the housing board after meeting with building-industry officials in late January.

At a meeting held Feb. 3, the board considered delaying only sections of the code, but then voted to delay its entire implementation until Oct. 1. State Attorney General Mary Sue Terry advised the board that it could delay implementation of the entire code or scrap the code, but could not implement only a portion of it. The board said at the time it was concerned that the expensive renovations would eliminate low- and moderate-priced housing in the state.

"The General Assembly has the power to enact laws, and if we adopt something they don't like, they could just pass a law to change it," said Robert Gates, a housing board member and a principal of the local property management firm of Gates, Hudson & Associates. "If the General Assembly is concerned about retrofit, we are concerned about retrofit." Gates said that he would oppose any code that granted a local official the right to force a landlord to retrofit a building.

"In this particular case, the board and the housing board staff had a misunderstanding," Gates said. "We believed retrofitting was not permitted under the version we passed, but apparently it was. That was not our intent." Gates said he believes that forcing retrofitting of existing buildings would create a "crisis" shortage of low-income housing.

However, Sherman Edmondson, chief of the Norfolk housing occupancy bureau, said that city has been able to maintain some of the least-expensive rental housing in the state while having one of the most aggressive code enforcement programs.

"The 1980 census shows that 53 percent of all our housing units are rentals and that 62 percent of those rent for less than $250 a month," Edmonson said. "And yet we have had one of the toughest local maintenance codes in the state. A tough code does not eliminate low-income housing; it keeps it because it keeps older buildings habitable."

Some local code-enforcement officials said that they believe the retrofit issue was a convenient excuse for delaying the adoption of the code in general, and said that retrofitting was a vague term used for "scare tactics."

The housing board has scheduled a public hearing on the code in Richmond on May 19.