By Josie Huang
MPBN Radio news story
A months-old law intended to standardize building codes around Maine and improve the energy efficiency and quality of new construction appears to be headed for some big changes in the Maine Legislature. Some in the construction industry view the Maine Uniform Building and Energy Code as synonymous with red tape. And as the session winds to a close, the law’s critics are settling for a plan that would reduce the number of municipalities that have to adopt the code.
The measure that passed the House today would exempt towns and cities with fewer than 4,000 residents from having to follow it.
“This is not a rollback–the code has barely gone into effect yet. People don’t know it’s there,” said Rep. Jon McKane, a Newcastle Republican and a contractor. He and other House Republicans pushed the measure to a 76 to 71 victory in what was largely a party-line vote. “I heard that people were very, very concerned with this code, and that it was standing in the way of some small projects and it was adding to the cost and the bureaucracy,” McKane said.
The code, for example, requires more home insulation than some contractors said they were used to installing. And it said third-party inspectors had to sign off on construction in smaller towns that don’t have building inspectors–which could tack on costs to the building project.
But supporters say exempting towns with under 4,000 people–an estimated 400-some communities–defeats the whole purpose of a uniform building code. “It makes it so 40 percent of the state is no longer covered, which creates a patchwork system which we were trying to avoid in the first place,” says Democratic Rep. Robert Hunt of Buxton.
Hunt pointed out that many builders supported the consistency and predictability offered by a a statewide code. The Maine Contractors and Builders Alliance, with 175 members in the midcoast, are among the building groups that testified in support of the law.
“Think about your own districts. One of your towns might be in the Uniform Building Code. One might be able to opt out. What’s that do for the contractors in your town? What’s that do? Sometimes you got to follow it sometimes you don’t?” Hunt said.
The bill faces additional votes in the Senate. But its foes are all but resigned to the fact that it will easily pass that chamber and move onto the desk of Gov. Paul LePage.
Dylan Voorhees of the Natural Resources Council of Maine says this presents a blow to the environment and consumers trying to save on energy costs. “This legislation will make it much harder for Maine to reduce its dependence on heating oil” he says.
Voorhees says that it’s cheaper to build energy-efficiency into a new home as the code encourages, than to try weatherizing it later. “The code means that somebody buying a new building in the state of Maine–just like in 40 other states that have this code–has a reasonable expectation that it’s going to meet a minimum building safety and energy efficiency standard,” he says.
Nothing precludes towns that fall under the exemption from adopting the statewide uniform code on their own. But Vorhees says hundreds of Maine communities are going without building codes, and there is no expectation that they would go through the process to adopt one now.
The law, as it stands now, says that towns with fewer than 2,000 residents do not have to enforce the building code. Supporters of the exemption for towns with more than 4,000 residents see the change as simply raising the size threshold of towns that must enforce the law.
“State law already exempts 324 of those municipalities because of its size–we’re talking about adding 65 to 70 more municipalities to that list,” says James Gillway a Republican state representative from Searsport, where he also serves as town manager.
Gillway says the exemption will let towns such as his be able to study and understand the building code, rather than feel forced into adopting it. “It will give our municipality some time to get on board,” he says.
Gillway says that he thinks by the next Legislature, more towns will have adopted the code. Calls to the Associated Builders and Contractors of Maine, a leading critic of the statewide building code, were not returned by airtime. The Senate is expected to vote on the measure tonight or tomorrow.