Building Codes

Published 12:00 am Friday, October 16, 2009

Garrett Pitcock with Morris Electric mounts a light switch box at a new home in the Tocowa community. If county supervisors move forward as expected, new residential construction will be inspected and must meet the basic requirements of the International Building Code. The Panolian photo by Billy Davis

Building codes in county face final hurdle

By Billy Davis

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A slow-moving plan to introduce residential building codes in Panola County has almost reached its finality.

The Board of Supervisors represents the next and final step after the county land development commission held a public hearing Monday in Sardis.

Supervisors are expected to approve building codes after they have publicly backed the concept for more than a year.

Mississippi law allows a county board of supervisors to adopt and administer building regulations.

The county board will be asked to approve the 2006 International Codes for building, residential, plumbing, mechanical, fuel gas, and fire, and the 2005 National Fire Code.

Supervisors Gary Thompson and Bubba Waldrup witnessed the uneventful public hearing Monday, where no one voiced opposition. The hearing had been advertised in The Panolian and The Southern Reporter.

Building codes and on-site inspections are common in municipalities, including in Batesville, where a city inspector scrutinizes construction of residential and commercial properties.

Such regulations are less common outside the city limits, especially in rural areas, but Panola County stands to join nearby counties Tate, Coahoma, Tunica and Marshall that have introduced building codes.

The land commission, early on in the process, heard from a Tunica County inspector who urged the county to implement codes.

Land commission consultant Bob Barber has said implementing building codes improves a home’s value by ensuring it was built at minimum requirements followed nationwide. That assurance is often followed with increased home construction, which leads to economic development over time.

“This is a major economic development issue,” Barber, a city planner for Hernando, told the commission Monday.

“I think building codes are a good idea,” said electrician Tracy Morris, whose crew was wiring a new home on Tocowa Road this week.

Morris had been hired by Greg Griffin and wife Angie, who are building a two-story, 3,000-square-foot home on a picturesque hilltop.

Angie Griffin, when asked about the ongoing construction, said she was unaware her home was being built without an independent inspection of the process.

Griffin said the house framers are from DeSoto County, where they follow stringent codes, and she’s hopeful they are following similar guidelines in Panola County.

“I’m fortunate because my dad is checking on the house every day,” she said. “He found a wall that wasn’t square – it was off two inches – that had to be fixed.”

Mrs. Griffin said she is relying on other contractors, such as Morris, based on their reputation.

“I’ve seen work that was not done right,” Morris told The Panolian. “An inspection would do away with jackleg jobs and shoddy work.”

Other contractors have made similar comments over the past year, suggesting also that on-site inspections would ensure no one “cuts corners” to save money.

Corner-cutting work can  be a problem for reputable contractors, they say, since they plan to expend more time and spend more money for a well-done job only to be outbid by a wily competitor.

For contractors working in Panola County, the new building codes will require a general contractor hold a license from the state.

For unlicensed contractors, the proposed rules allow them to be grandfathered if they provide three notarized letters from customers showing satisfactory work in the previous two years.

The land commission, at its Monday meeting, set a minimum of $1,000 for the previous jobs.

The current recession has slowed housing starts in Panola County, where 36 permits for new homes were issued from January through October. Permits for new mobile homes totaled 62 through October.

For more than a decade unincorporated Panola County has operated with land-use regulations, which included a timeline for introducing building codes. But introducing the codes has been slow to come, partly because of a feared backlash from Panola County’s rural community.

The notion of building codes suddenly got a boost in 2007, when Panola County led the state with seven fire-related deaths.

After several deaths, the land commission was urged by late Supervisor Robert Avant to implement fire codes that impact older mobile homes, where several fire deaths had occurred.

New-model mobile homes undergo a federal inspection, but Avant was concerned that older mobile homes are prone to fire safety hazards, especially electrical problems, as they deteriorate over time.

Among the 10 commissioners, discussion of regulating mobile homes has led to spirited debate. Some commissioners wanted to enact far-reaching rules, but others believed a public backlash would sink the overall plan for building codes.

Supervisor Thompson, at a commission meeting this summer, eventually weighed in on that topic. He agreed that dangerous mobile homes are a “major problem,” but he also agreed the public might revolt against what it considered heavy-handed regulations.

The topic resurfaced Monday, when commissioner Bob Haltom opined, “We have not helped the fire problem.”

“I differ on that,” replied commission chairman Danny Walker. “Yes we have done something but not as much as we could.”

When the final proposal reaches supervisors in coming days, new homes and major home renovations are set to be inspected. But new and old mobile homes will be exempt.

Also exempt are farm structures and outbuildings, and swimming pools.

The Board of Supervisors, after conducting interviews, hired Michael Purdy to oversee the residential inspections.