By Gary Gray
Editor’s Note: This is the second in a three-part series of stories focused on the direction of Johnson City’s Board of Commissioners. A new mayor, vice-mayor and two new members of the board are in the process of charting the city’s path into the future. This installment deals with building codes and their effect on economic development in Johnson City.
Johnson City’s building codes are the nuts and bolts that bind developers and contractors to policies approved by local leaders, with the intent being a net gain for everyone involved and a more prosperous community.
A new mayor, vice mayor and City Commission lineup is now in place, and they collectively agree builders have legitimate concerns about the layers of local requirements and the need to streamline the process. To address this, an effort has been initiated to rake through codes and train staff in order to improve customer service skills.
Most contractors who spoke with The News & Neighbor were hesitant to reveal their names, but they were more than willing to cite what they feel are costly impediments. Topping the list is the city’s potential rejection of state amendments to the 2018 energy code and 2017 electric code. The amendments reduce unneeded and expensive requirements, according to contractors. Still, they say the city could reject those amendments, which they can legally do.
Other concerns include a lengthy annexation process, which hinders contractors’ ability to set costs; inspectors are not consistent in their instruction; different inspectors show up at one site, causing confusion; costs related to code compliance continue to rise, cutting profit, thus incentive; rules and regulations are overreaching and cost restraints make it hard to retain local subcontractors.
“By and large, the builders I talk to are not so upset over the codes in place, but the inconsistent interpretation by our staff,” said Mayor Jenny Brock. “When the new commissioners came on board they cited concerns about streamlining building codes. Employees are receiving training to give them clarity to what the policies are, and that the administration supports them.
“We have layer upon layer of policy, and maybe the way we’re writing the code is confusing. We want a clean and clear set of guidelines, and this is very, very high on our list. We meet the International Building Code, but the state also will be weighing in before we can complete it.”
Hicks Construction owner, Tim Hicks, who serves on the Johnson City Area Home Builders Association Board of Directors, said city commissioners are working with local builders. He also said Development Services Department Director Preston Mitchell is “calling the right people,” and that he believes city officials are trying to address their concerns.
“My company recently did a cost analysis on a 2,200-square-foot home,” Hicks said. “Right now, it would cost about $300,000 to build. If the city puts those codes in place (without accepting state amendments), the cost will go up by more than $10,000, and that will be passed on to homeowners. This is the single most expensive code adoption we’ve ever seen.”
Hicks said he and other contractors are working at the state level in an effort to adopt legislation requiring codes that apply across the board to all Tennessee municipalities.
“I believe it is important to acknowledge that there is inherent potential for tension between builders and building inspectors,” said Vice Mayor Joe Wise. “They are each working with valid objectives and concerns. The builder seeks to construct a marketable and profitable project. The building inspector seeks to ensure that the built environment in our community is safe for future occupants and first responders. With that said, there are always additional things the city can do to tweak the process to ensure it is efficient, consistent and predictable.”
Newly elected Commissioner and Mountain States Credit Union CEO John Hunter is involved in lending to builders and developers for construction, and he said he is acutely aware of the current conversation. He said the concerns are valid and that city staff has taken steps to improve the process and the perception.
“This coming year we must move to a newer standard of building codes,” Hunter said. “I don’t see any reason why the counties and cities in our region would have an issue with their respective building department heads getting together to recommend what the Tri-Cities should adopt unilaterally. People aren’t more or less important in Kingsport than Johnson City or Sullivan County versus Bristol.”
Hunter also said things could be much worse in Johnson City.
“I have some builders that live and work in the Asheville market, and apparently we are much easier to deal with than what they face over the mountain,” he said. “Their overreaching rules and regulations have made building a very costly, frustrating and difficult job. From their accounts, the only net gain isn’t in better building practices or safety, it’s the exorbitant costs added to the end users bill.”
New Commissioner Larry Calhoun said his colleagues bear the responsibility of balancing citizen safety and customer-friendly building codes.
“Commissioners have heard one presentation on the possible upgrading of building codes, and have asked for additional information before any decisions are made,” Calhoun said. “Personally, I think it is important to make sure we are on par with surrounding communities. It is critical that we listen to those that will be affected by any changes. I have personally spoken to some builders and hope to hear the viewpoint of others.”
Commissioner Todd Fowler said the city hired an extremely competent person when Preston Mitchell came onboard.
“I think he is going to change some of the processes to make it more contractor/developer friendly,” Fowler said. “I also believe the current City Commission is going to push to make Johnson City an easier place to develop.”
The Codes Division accepts and reviews plans for all construction with the municipal boundaries, including electrical, plumbing, mechanical, fire and so on. This applies to all new residential and commercial developments. The division works with the Board of Building Codes and the Board of Dwelling Standards and Review to resolve disputes.
Development Services Department Director Preston Mitchell can be reached at 423.434.6074 or by email, firstname.lastname@example.org. Chief Building Official Jim Sullivan can be reached at 423.434.6047, or by email, email@example.com.
A new codes enforcement complaint line has been established for citizens to report code violations at 423.434.5775. To review Johnson City’s building codes, go to www.johnsoncitytn.org/devservices/codes.
Next week’s final installment will examine efforts by the city government to leverage the region’s outdoor assets to attract talent, employers and tourism dollars to Johnson City.