County's Request to Avoid Mandated Building Codes Wins Approval in State Legislature
On Monday, members of the Tennessee General Assembly considered and passed HB0539 (SB1167). The bill authorizes the state fire marshal to inspect an owner's building upon the owner's request to determine if the building meets the statewide safety standards, even if the building is located in a county or municipality that has opted out of the statewide safety codes. The proposal was sponsored by State Representatives Barry Doss and David Byrd and State Senator Joey Hensley in Nashville at the behest of the Lawrence County Commission.
Back in September, officials with the State Fire Marshal's Office informed county leaders that since they had not adopted residential building codes in the unincorporated parts of the county, county government would no longer be eligible for certain USDA, Rural Development, VA and FHA grants. They also told local leaders that private citizens no longer be able to qualify for certain government-backed loans and that home builders could not obtain a certificate of occupancy until codes were adopted. This re-interpretation of state law did not sit well with a majority of the commission who felt like the state was trying to strong arm Lawrence County and other local governments into adopting statewide building codes.
"Since we are a rural and economically challenged county, the county commission has always thought it best to opt out of residential codes because adopting codes often leads to increased costs for materials and construction costs for citizens," said Commissioner Chris Jackson who authored and co-sponsored the proposal that was sent to the legislature. "We have also been afraid that if adopted, it would eventually lead to more comprehensive and far reaching codes from the state and federal government which could also pose a serious financial burden on the citizens of the county. Plus, currently, a large majority of contractors already follow proper code without government mandating it and charging extra for it," Jackson added.
In November, the county commission passed a resolution co-sponsored by commissioners Jackson, Scott Franks, Wayne Yocom and Jim Modlin that voiced opposition to the State's attempt to force local governments to adopt residential building codes. The resolution also requested state leaders to sponsor an amendment to Tennessee Code § 68-120- 101 to remedy the ongoing situation.
After passage on the county commission, County Executive TR Williams worked the phones contacting other counties around the state who were also opted-out of building codes to inform them of the action Lawrence County was taking on the issue. "I made sure I contacted every county executive and mayor in counties that were opted-out of building codes like we were so they could join us in pushing for this legislative change," Williams said. "Like Lawrence County, a large majority of these counties were against state mandated building codes and felt like the state was trying to change the original intent of the law to force local governments to opt-in," he added.
State Representatives Doss and Byrd and State Senator Joey Hensley introduced the measure in the General Assembly on February 9th, and after making its way through the committee system the bill won final approval on April 24th. With the law now amended, Lawrence County Government will remain eligible for all grant funding, citizens can satisfy the terms of loans they may have, and home builders can obtain the certificate of occupancies they need.
"We want to thank Representatives Doss and Bryd as well as Senator Hensley for listening to us and working hard to make this important change in state law," Commissioner Jackson and County Executive Williams said in a joint statement. "The bottom line is anyone in Lawrence County can now voluntarily get a home inspection now in our county if they want it, but our citizens will not be mandated into buying additional permits and paying extra cost when they build a home. The choice remains in the hands of each citizen, not the government and in this case that is a positive thing," they concluded.