Fairfax County officials have criticized what they say are "inadequate" fire protection standards in a statewide housing-construction code that went into effect April 1, claiming that the code adopted by the Virginia housing board has "omissions of basic fire-safety requirements."
Fairfax supervisors complained about the revised construction code in a letter to Virginia Gov. Gerald L. Baliles, in which they said the new code "weakened" the authority of localities to impose stiffer fire protection standards and that it reduced the required level of fire resistance for party walls between rental units.
The changes, which primarily affect urbanized, fast-growing counties with town-house and condominium construction, were adopted by the Virginia Board of Housing and Community Development last year, with the approval of the Northern Virginia Builders Association.
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 in some localities and use of lead-based paint.
The housing board agreed in the fall to adopt a more stringent building-maintenance code after housing officials from Virginia's urbanized jurisdictions complained that the code offered too few protections for tenants.
The board, however, later delayed adoption of the more stringent code when apartment-building owners complained to state legislators in January that the tougher version of the code would require expensive renovation of existing buildings. The housing board is scheduled to hold another public hearing on the issue later this month.
The Virginia housing board, an eight-member board appointed by the governor, has the authority to amend Virginia's Uniform Statewide Building Code, which sets minimum standards for construction in the state. The board regularly reviews the code every three years, making changes it deems necessary.
In 1981, the board adopted a nationally recognized building code amendment that included a provision allowing local jurisdictions to set up "fire districts," or zones that would carry more stringent building requirements.
The idea of fire districts, according to Fairfax Supervisor Audrey Moore (D-Annandale), is to allow localities the option of stronger fire protection in areas where there is high-density development. Moore said Fairfax fire statistics have pinpointed dense residential developments as the biggest fire risks.
In 1984, however, Building Officials and Code Administrators International Inc., the nationally recognized group that recommends changes to all states to keep building codes current, recommended that fire districts be dropped from the BOCA model code. According to Fairfax officials, that change eliminated certain fire protections from the code that were not compensated for with other amendments. One of the changes led to a reduction in the fire resistance level for party walls between rental town houses and apartments.
BOCA made additional amendments to the model code in 1985, changes that Fairfax officials say correct the problems created in 1984 by the elimination of fire districts.
In its triennial review of the building code, however, the Virginia housing board voted to adopt only the 1984 amendments to the BOCA code, not the 1985 amendments.
Robert Gates, a member of the housing board from Northern Virginia, said the board was "aware of Fairfax County's concerns" and had petitioned BOCA for a clarification, but that the 1985 BOCA amendments had not been adopted by the time the Virginia housing board voted on the new version of the Virginia code last November, an extension of the 1984 review. For that reason, the 1985 and 1986 BOCA supplements will not be considered for inclusion in Virginia's code until the next triennial review in 1987.
Jack Proctor, administrator for the Virginia state building code, said the housing board rejected the concept of reinstating fire districts when the issue was raised last year "based upon the premise that the fire safety provisions of the BOCA Basic Building Code had been strengthened so that there was no longer any need for fire districts."
Tony Ahuja, director of technical services for the Northern Virginia Builders Association, said the 1985 amendments "do not improve upon the standards, they only clarify the standards" set in the 1984 code and therefore are not necessary.
"BOCA adopted the 1984 code after a two-year study," Ahuja said. "We felt, as an industry, that it was important for Virginia to adopt a uniform code. If it is good enough for the rest of the country, it is good enough for us."
Fairfax officials said, however, that the elimination of fire districts had the effect of reducing the standard fire-resistance level for party walls between rental town houses and apartments.
Under the fire district provision in the 1981 code, Fairfax was allowed to require party walls between apartment units that could resist fire for two hours.
In the BOCA code, the requirement for fire walls is different for apartments and condominiums because fire-wall ratings are based on ownership lot lines. Because condominiums are individually owned and technically separated by lot lines, they are required to have party walls that can resist fire for two hours. Because apartments -- or rented town houses -- do not have lot lines between them, they are only required to have party walls that resist fire for one hour.
With the elimination of the fire districts, Fairfax lost the right to require builders to put in two-hour fire walls. Fairfax officials said the two-hour requirement could mean the difference between life and death if traffic congestion made it difficult for emergency crews to get to the scene of a fire.
Proctor said, however, that apartments "were being built all over the country that only have one-hour fire walls." The Northern Virginia builders also defended the standard, saying that "one hour is plenty of time to vacate any town house or apartment." Ahuja said the two-hour fire walls only help protect property, not human life, and that they cost builders an additional $500 to $1,000 per unit.
Baliles, who signed the code into law this spring, is not planning any direct action to change the code, a spokesman said. Proctor said Fairfax's concerns would be raised with the housing board at its next regular meeting May 19. He said the board also would start to hold hearings on the building code later this year and that the county could seek to make changes at that time.
Gates, who said it "didn't make sense" for the code to require different fire-wall ratings based on ownership of the unit, said he would support changing the Virginia code.