Brock, Hunter sworn into office before tackling new building code proposal

Zach Vance • Updated Dec 3, 2018 at 10:55 PM

Hours after being sworn into office on the steps of City Hall, Commissioner John Hunter and Vice Mayor Jenny Brock joined their three Johnson City Commission colleagues for a two-plus hour seminar on adopting new building codes for the city. 

Chief Building Officer Jim Sullivan walked the commissioners through the 10 different codes he proposes be adopted, which included an updated building, residential, fire, mechanical, plumbing, property maintenance and even swimming pool code. 

Sullivan said Johnson City is an “exempt jurisdiction,” meaning the state fire marshal’s office allows the city to issue its own building permits and conducts its own inspections. Because of that, the city has the ability to be more restrictive with its codes than the state, but it cannot be less restrictive. 

“As an exempt jurisdiction, we’re required by state law to adopt codes that are published by a national code organization, and we must be within seven years of the latest publication of that code,” Sullivan said. 

As it currently stands, Johnson City’s codes department is operating under International Code Council’s 2012 codes.

“As we’re moving into 2019, it’s time for us to look at updates,” Sullivan said. 

If commissioners vote to approve the code changes, the new codes would only affect newly-built or newly-remodeled homes or structures that receive building permits after three readings.

One-by-one, Sullivan detailed various amendments he’s proposed for each of the 10 codes, and the change he expects to be the most controversial, specifically to homebuilder associations, is a change requiring arc fault circuit interrupters, or AFCIs.

Basically, an AFCI is a device meant to reduce electrical fire threats by breaking the circuit when it detects a dangerous electrical arc. 

“It’s designed to protect the structure and it prevents fires. One of the No. 1 causes of fires in the United States are electrical reasons, and it has to do with arcing in electrical circuits,” Sullivan said. 

Previously, Sullivan said AFCIs were only required for certain areas of homes, like bedrooms and living rooms, but he is proposing AFCIs be installed in every “dwelling unit” or room of a newly-constructed or newly-remodeled homes. 

Sullivan predicted AFCIs cost about $30 more per breaker. For a single-family house, the addition of AFCIs would cost an extra $300 to $500. 

Sullivan said the Johnson City Area Homebuilders Association has expressed concern about the AFCI requirement, arguing the devices can falsely trip at times. 

“The argument the homebuilders association will make is that if they trip, my client is going to lose a freezer full of food,” Sullivan said. 

When asked if other surrounding cities have also adopted new construction codes, Sullivan said Kingsport adopted all the 2018 codes in July and Sullivan County, who is not exempt, adopted the 2018 energy code. Commissioner Larry Calhoun did ask Sullivan to compile a side-by-side comparison of the amendments Kingsport made and the amendments he is proposing. 

“At the heart of it, there’s a perception whether fair or right, that sometimes Johnson City is just vastly more difficult to work with when it comes to plan reviews, inspections and these things,” Commissioner Joe Wise said. 

“I think, at the end of the day, most people appreciate the codes, if equally enforced, meaning my competitor can’t take certain kinds of shortcuts because everybody has got to meet certain kinds of standards and everything is made safer.” 

Development Services Director Preston Mitchell said these changes come down to life safety, not aesthetics. 

Other proposed amendments include: Providing fire department connections within 100 feet of water supply; providing sprinkler protection in all educational occupancies; and permitting 14-gauge, 15-amp wiring. Under the current proposal, Johnson City would continue to recognize the state exemption for sprinkler requirements in single- and two-family homes and townhouses. 

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