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Pros and cons of bill debated

Coalition pushing for statewide building code legislation

Jackson — On January 19, the Coalition to Build a Safer and Stronger Mississippi gathered at the State Capitol to unveil legislation that for the first time in state history would create a statewide building code. Sponsored by State Sen. Mike Chaney of Vicksburg and House Speaker Pro Tempore J.P. Compretta of Bay St. Louis, supporters of the bill maintain that a unified building code in Mississippi is essential, a belief that was only strengthened by the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina last August.

“We’re rebuilding for our children, so they can live where they want to live in safe and durable houses they can hand down to the next generation,” Compretta said.

Compretta and Chaney added that a unified building code would also send a message to Washington, D.C., that Mississippi would use any federal assistance to rebuild in an appropriate fashion.

Up to international standards

The Building a Safer and Stronger Mississippi Act calls for the adoption of statewide building codes for uniform design, construction and inspection of both residential and commercial buildings. (Farm structures are exempt.) The codes adopted would be the 2003 International Residential Code (IRC) for one- and two-family dwellings and the 2003 International Building Code (IBC) for commercial buildings with the international family of codes for mechanical, plumbing, fuel gas, fire and national electric.

The legislation would establish a statewide Codes Council, which would be charged with reviewing and adopting the state building codes, overseeing training, education and certification of code officials and inspectors and reviewing amendments to the codes. Local governments would enforce the building codes, which would be updated every three years, using the Codes Council, made up of representatives from construction (both residential and commercial), building materials suppliers, law enforcement and fire fighters, insurance, engineers and architects, the general public, the disabled and others.

Local governments would enforce the building codes using Codes Council-certified building code enforcement officials and inspectors. Local governments could hire their own building official, contract with other government entities or contract with certified third-party providers.

The legislation also calls for the implementation of emergency wind and flood mitigation requirements for the South Mississippi counties of Hancock, Harrison, Jackson, George, Greene, Stone, Pearl River and Perry. The emergency wind and flood provisions would remain in force until the Codes Council adopts the IBC and IRC as minimum mandatory statewide codes effective July 1, 2007. Local governments unable to enforce these emergency provisions would defer to the Mississippi Fire Marshal’s Office for enforcement.

Finally, local governments could adopt more stringent amendments to the codes when certain conditions are met.

‘Hot button’ issue

Enactment of statewide building codes is not a new idea. Perry Nations, executive director of the Associated General Contractors of Mississippi (AGC), said adopting unified codes has been a “hot button” issue for years. The destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina last August only accelerated efforts and brought the issue to the fore.

“It’s been DOA, I guess you could say, when it arrived at the Legislature, principally because rural areas didn’t want a unified code,” said Nations.

The AGC is a member of the coalition and is joined by a number of other entities. These include Associated Builders and Contractors of Mississippi, American Institute of Architects/Mississippi, American Subcontractors Association of Mississippi, Mississippi Association of Home Inspectors, Mississippi Engineering Society, among others.

However, one group noticeably missing from this lineup is the Home Builders Association of Mississippi (HBAM). Marty Milstead, executive vice president of the HBAM, is critical of the bill for a number of reasons, including the amendment provision, which he feels defeats the basic idea behind the codes, the burden placed on local governments to meet the codes’ provisions and the makeup of the council — specifically, the representation, or lack thereof, of homebuilders.

“There are some members of the council that know nothing about building codes,” Milstead said. “Homebuilders would have only one representative on the council, yet no group would deal with the new code more than homebuilders. I just feel that those who work to develop the code ought to know what they are talking about.”

Milstead was quick to add that HBAM was in favor of unified codes, and had been pushing the issue for years. He is hopeful that his group’s concerns will be addressed and that homebuilders could join the coalition.

Nations said he feels good about the legislation. A longtime construction industry insider, Nations said the coalition represents the largest group ever to push for a unified building code. There is a tremendous amount of momentum for a standard code. And with the backing of both Chaney and Compretta, he feels the bill will be heard in both chambers of the Mississippi Legislature.

However, Nations admitted that there were still hurdles to overcome, not the least of which is the homebuilders’ concerns, and he said if the bill is not enacted this year, at least everyone could see where they stand, address concerns and be ready for enactment next year.

“Don’t get me wrong. We are a member of the coalition, and would like to see it passed this year,” he said.

Milstead said he hopes it does not take that long either. He said HBAM is still talking with the coalition’s members, and there is still a chance HBAM might join the coalition. “It’s not dead. We’re still talking,” Milstead said. “If we can have our concerns addressed, I would like to see legislation passed this year. We need a standard building code. We just have some problems with this bill.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at northway@msbusiness.com.

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