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Archive for Monday, February 22, 1999

INSPECTION VOID SCRUTINIZED

February 22, 1999

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Douglas County has had minimum standards for residential building for years. County commissioners soon will be asked to extend those standards to commercial building, as well.

Beside the yellow, picket-fenced Victorian Veranda Country Inn north of Lawrence, the smaller building is an afterthought, a peaked roof above a two-car garage.

Yet under the current Douglas County code system, it was the garage apartment that was checked, from concrete footing to furnace flue, by a county employee.

The inn -- with its 10 guest rooms, kitchen and huge bay windows -- didn't receive so much as a cursory inspection by the county.

"I haven't even gone in," said Keith Dabney, county building and zoning director.

It is a contradiction at the heart of Dabney's mission to get a commercial building code passed for Douglas County. He plans to offer a proposal by next month that calls for the Douglas County Commission to adopt a version of the Uniform Building Code, a set of minimum standards and inspections, for commercial buildings.

For more than a decade, houses and duplexes constructed outside the incorporated areas of Douglas County have been required to be built to minimum standards. When you stand in a Douglas County house built during that time, you can be relatively sure the wires are big enough to carry the electricity, the foundation will support the walls, and the roof and the windows will let you escape in a fire.

When you stand in a county business, you can't be so sure.

Rob Phillips, co-owner of the Victorian Veranda Country Inn, said the bed and breakfast was built to be safe. He is living there himself and believes the building would live up to the expectations of county inspectors.

But it didn't have to.

Lots of growth

The need for commercial building codes has become more crucial as commercial construction has grown, Dabney said.

Last year, the county issued 13 commercial building permits. Together, the structures had an estimated value of more than $2 million, an amount far greater than any year since 1981.

"We'll probably exceed that ... this year, the way things are going," Dabney said.

For each of those businesses, a site plan with proper setbacks had to be filed. The buildings could not be located in the 100-year floodplain. They had to meet zoning requirements, and building permits had to be obtained prior to their construction.

From there, owners of the business structures were on their own.

"We can't require them to do anything," Dabney said.

That is a scary thought to Dabney, for whom a tour of the county is an exercise in worst-case scenarios: exit doors that don't open outward to let people escape and sleeping rooms with no emergency exits.

There is money to be saved with every corner cut.

Walking through a new building being constructed for Bracker Good Earth Clays on East 1450 Road north of Lawrence, Dabney pointed out metal conduit holding electrical wires in the still-unfinished walls.

Those wires could have been simply stapled to the wall studs. Doing so would have saved several thousand dollars in labor and materials, Dabney said.

It also would have posed a greater risk of an electrical short and possibly a fire, he said.

Fortunately, the owner chose to have voluntary inspections, which Dabney does as a courtesy for the few who ask. For Anne W. Bracker, who knows clay but not construction, the inspections are an added assurance that everything is being done safely.

"I've never put up a new house; I've never put up anything," Bracker said.

Price was a concern, but with room for expansion, the building is to be home for the family-run business for years to come. Bracker wants it to last.

The volunteer inspections were welcomed by builder Morton Buildings, as well.

The company, which has 114 regional offices, mostly in the eastern half of the country, is concerned about liability and builds to Uniform Building Code standards, said Randy Ward, field representative with the company's Holton office.

"If there is ever a problem with the structure, the liability falls on the builder to have met the code, whether it's enforced or not," Ward said.

Codes means safety

For Ward and other builders like him, codes level the playing field.

Ward said his company loses contracts to companies who are willing to build to a lesser standard.

"If another contractor is willing to come in and build a building that does not have the required snow loads or wind loads, then his cost would be less," Ward said.

For that reason, the codes don't draw criticism from too many builders, said Mike Bertram, head of planning and zoning for Butler County east of Wichita.

"Most contractors are favorable to this, most good contractors," Bertram said. "They know this will weed out substandard work."

Butler County passed its first set of building codes in September.

By doing so, it joined what seems to be a minority of Kansas counties, though even Ivan Weichert, president of the Kansas Association of County Planning and Zoning Officials, doesn't know how many have building codes for their unincorporated areas.

"Part of the reason we don't count them up is we won't like the result," Weichert said. "It won't help our position."

Weichert said Kansas is well behind other states in instituting such codes.

"We're still building like they did 50 years ago in rural Kansas," Weichert said.

Weichert has been unable to get a building code passed for Shawnee County, where he is zoning administrator and where, as in Douglas County, the pace of commercial building has jumped in the last year.

"Typically, the county has been represented by agricultural interests that were always afraid bureaucracy and red tape would invade," Weichert said.

But the bureaucracy may be inevitable as banks and insurance companies are taking more care in loaning money and insuring property, Weichert said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency also has pushed for building code implementation, Weichert said, because the agency does not want to spend federal money to rebuild flood-destroyed buildings that might not have been built to standards.

"It's all tied together," Weichert said.

A spirit of independence

Part of the barrier is a remnant of the Old West spirit in Kansas, said Wayne Kellum, who was zoning administrator for Douglas County when residential building codes were passed.

"You are always going to get people that say `This is my land, and I'm going to do what I want to do,'" Kellum said.

That spirit can make building codes a tough political sell.

But to Butler County's Bertram, Douglas County already has fought the tougher battle, getting residential building codes on the books.

In conjunction with adding commercial building codes, Douglas County won't need to hire additional inspectors, at least initially, Dabney said.

Kellum said that when residential codes were instituted by a 2-1 county commission vote, Douglas County was far ahead of other Kansas counties.

Commercial building codes weren't passed at that time because of a perception by county commission members that there wasn't a problem and because there wasn't much commercial building occurring, Kellum said.

The current commissioners seem favorable to the idea.

"It doesn't seem right that you can issue a building permit and never look at (the building)," said Commission Chairman Dean Nieder.

Commissioner Charles Jones agreed: "I think we're taking a harder look at what is happening in the unincorporated parts of the county."

But Dabney is taking nothing for granted and is trying to do as thorough a job as possible in making his case.

He may have gotten an unintended assist from the Feb. 4 fire at the Lawrence Athletic Club. The fire started in the older portion of the club but was kept from destroying the newer portion by a fire wall and a sprinkler system required by city codes.

Without them, Lawrence Fire Marshal Rich Barr said, "It would have all looked like the other half."

Dabney would like to get the codes in place as soon as possible.

One of his reasons is a religious campus being planned by First Church of the Nazarene a few miles south of Lawrence. The campus, dubbed Forest View Ministries, is envisioned as a group of buildings constructed over 20 years, including a sanctuary, gymnasium, elementary school and missionary housing.

"It's a huge, huge project," Dabney said.

The church has yet to get a building permit for the first phase, a 16,037-square-foot multipurpose building.

Dabney said the plans for the building look good.

But without building codes or an invitation from the church, Dabney won't be going inside.

-- Kendrick Blackwood's phone message number is 832-7221. His e-mail address is kblackwood@ljworld.com.

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