“Today, Maine’s lack of a uniform statewide building code seriously hinders redevelopment by injecting uncertainty into investors’s decisionmaking, consuming time, and making clear guidance from a central source impossible to obtain.”
— Charting Maine’s Future, report of Brookings Institution staff for Growsmart Maine, 2006
Ask any downtown booster or city economic development official what they think about Maine’s patchwork of building codes, and you’ll get an unprintable answer.
As the Brookings analysts wrote, the anarchy created by building codes particular to every community makes economic development difficult. It makes headaches for builders. It allows buildings in one town to be safer and more energy efficient, while those in other towns aren’t built to similarly high standards. It stymies the progress of historic building rehabilitation.
Now, lawmakers are considering a bill to set a statewide building code. The bill comes out of deliberations conducted by the State Planning Office over eight months, which included a range of players from historic preservationists to contractors, architects, planners, economic development officials and staff from the state Fire Marshal’s office.
The legislation establishes a state board of professionals to adopt the statewide code. Importantly, the bill sets a mechanism for resolving conflicts among building, fire, electric and plumbing codes, which are so often a source of consternation that those conflicts have a name: the “Code Wars.”
The bill promotes historic rehabilitation by mandating that towns adopt the state’s model rehabilitation code for historic buildings; it also establishes a training program in the rehabilitation regulations for code officers, architects, builders and designers.
And as we mentioned in an earlier editorial, the bill will set a uniform energy conservation code — with training offered, as in the historic preservation code — which will promote construction that will save money and conserve energy.
The code then will be enforced by municipalities with more than 2,000 residents (smaller towns will be exempted from the enforcement mandate). That means 330 Maine towns will not be required to enforce the code.
While we reluctantly acknowledge that Maine’s smaller towns may simply not have the budget or manpower to conduct enforcement of a state building code, the Maine Municipal Association, or MMA, has rejected the bill’s enforcement mandate for any town. They propose property owners hire third-party inspectors instead.
That strikes us as an abrogation of municipal authority, as well as a bit of pique on the part of municipal officials who don’t like the diminishment of their authority represented by the proposal. Since when do local officials like giving up control? And given that towns have code officers to enforce local building codes, we’re hard-pressed to understand how a state mandate to enforce a state code would be a problem — either organizationally or economically — for municipalities.
“MMA’s policy committee has long opposed the state adoption of a building code,” the MMA’s representative, Jeff Austin, testified. “Municipalities believed that authority should be coupled with responsibility; whomever has the responsibility to enforce the code should have the authority to choose it.”
Yet, Austin said, the MMA had finally agreed to the “targeted reduction of local control” represented by the bill in order to ease the regulatory burden on developers. As long as towns didn’t have to enforce the statewide building code, that is.
If town officials are worried about the cost of a code enforcement officer, the same money-saving options are available to them that have always been available for enforcement of local building codes: Share a code official with another town or use the code enforcement services of a regional agency or certified private companies.
Indeed, it would likely be much easier for towns to share a code enforcement officer if the bill were passed, since that officer would not have to learn a different set of codes for each town. Likewise, county government could offer code enforcement circuit riders for a fee to the towns in their region.
Adoption of a statewide building code would represent real progress for Maine. It would not only ease the development of energy-efficient and high-quality structures across the state, as well as the rehabilitation of historic structures, it would demonstrate that Maine’s antique, cumbersome and costly system of local control can, and should, yield to more efficient and centralized forms of regulation.
As long as there’s local enforcement.