Breaking the Code?

Reynauld Songy
May 7, 2007
Steve Collins
May 9, 2007
Reynauld Songy
May 7, 2007
Steve Collins
May 9, 2007

A new statewide building code was one of the most tangible responses by lawmakers to hurricanes Katrina and Rita. But it was done quickly, a knee-jerk reaction that many lawmakers say didn’t involve enough thought.

The mandatory requirements are causing legislative heartburn now, as homeowners complain the code is adding thousands of dollars in costs to even the simplest construction projects and local governments complain they don’t have the people or money to enforce the requirements.

Lawmakers are trying to work out a compromise on adjustments to the building code n but it’s unclear if it will be minor tweaking or a major overhaul. Some north and central Louisiana lawmakers want to do away with some requirements entirely, saying they shouldn’t apply to areas of Louisiana that aren’t vulnerable to hurricanes.

“I’m not sure that a building code in Shreveport is needed like it is in New Orleans,” said Senate President Don Hines, D-Bunkie.

Hines said the complicated statewide code was put in place too quickly, and he suggests a possible moratorium on the code north of Ascension Parish, in parishes considered less vulnerable to hurricanes.

To illustrate the problems, Hines described the “horror story” of his daughter’s attempts to add a room and bathroom to her home near Bunkie. She had to hire architects and advisers to help her navigate through the building code requirements and inspection fees, Hines said.

“You end up spending close to $6,000 and you haven’t driven a nail. There’s something wrong with that situation,” Hines said.

The Legislature agreed to the new building code n urged by Gov. Kathleen Blanco n in a November 2005 special session, only months after Katrina and Rita leveled and flooded homes in south Louisiana.

In some south Louisiana parishes, the wind and flood provisions of the new code were implemented quickly, while the rest of the parishes had to adopt the new building standards by January of this year. Requirements differ around the state, with stiffer regulations in areas more vulnerable to hurricanes.

Supporters of the building code said it would make new homes and buildings safer against future hurricane devastation, holding down insurance rates and encouraging insurers to stay in Louisiana.

Opponents argued a statewide building code would overwhelm some local governments, particularly in rural areas, who didn’t have the resources to enforce it, and that it would jack up home construction costs. Many lawmakers say that’s exactly what’s occurred.

“We have driven the cost of construction up dramatically all over the state under the guise of ‘The insurance companies are going to come back and lower rates.’ Well, that hasn’t happened,” said Sen. Robert Adley, D-Benton, whose northwest Louisiana district neighbors the Arkansas state line.

“You can’t go build a doghouse without a permit now. You can’t build a storage shed, unless you’re a farmer, without a permit now,” Adley said.

The House Commerce Committee is holding hearings on ways to ease the costs of the higher building standards, simplify the inspection process and make other adjustments to the statewide mandatory building code.

Committee members started discussing possible changes last week, and more hearings are planned. Rep. Gil Pinac, D-Crowley, the House Commerce Committee chairman, hopes to get a compromise bill that lawmakers can support.

Though some lawmakers just want to see the building code go away entirely, few seem to think that’s possible in the current legislative session.

“I don’t think repealing it is the answer,” said House Speaker Joe Salter, D-Florien. “I think if we want insurance companies to keep writing in Louisiana, I think we have to have some sort of minimum building code.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte covers the state Capitol for The Associated Press.