Johnson City aims to improve process, customer service through reorg of development department

In this August 2018 file photo, crews construct a house at the corner of East Oakland and Forest avenues.

Tim Hicks, the owner of a custom home building company in Gray, Hicks Construction, said local developers are used to working on projects in multiple counties and cities in the region.

And each local government tends to have its own set of expectations when it comes to building codes.

“Whenever you’re dealing with codes in each area, it’s difficult,” said Hicks, who was also recently elected to serve as the District 6 representative in the Tennessee House. “It’s very difficult.”

In conjunction with Washington County and other local governments, Johnson City is in the process of updating its building codes, during which officials hope to bring more uniformity in what developers can expect when they start a project in either the city or the county.

“It’s about finding consensus so that there is commonality between our building codes from a customer service perspective to make really building out our region a more friendly ... prospect,” said Johnson City Development Services Director Preston Mitchell, who noted that staff has consulted with multiple county and city governments in the region throughout the process.

Mitchell expects the Johnson City Commission to consider the changes for the first time on Dec. 3. The updates will require three votes from the commission before they are officially approved.

Johnson City is adopting many of the 2018 rules released by the International Codes Council, but will apply several of its own local amendments to those regulations.

Other governments in the region are also now adopting elements of the 2018 codes.

Mitchell said the region is seeing rapid growth, especially in residential development, and officials are trying to make the development process as efficient and cost-effective as possible.

When builders start projects, they may have to adapt to standards in jurisdictions that use different sets of codes released by the International Codes Council, Mitchell said, and governments could in turn have local amendments that vary depending on the city or county.

“It just makes for a less-efficient buildout of an area,” Mitchell said.

These are differences that Mitchell noted the average homeowner would rarely be able to discern with the naked eye, but it can be enough to affect developers’ bottom line.

Although local officials have agreed with the notion of improving accessibility through more uniform codes, Mitchell added that regional governments appear to be partnering with jurisdictions that are most compatible with their needs, such as Bristol, Virginia, with Bristol, Tennessee.

When Johnson City commissioners reviewed the international building codes in December 2018, Vice Mayor Joe Wise said there were many local amendments being added into the mix, which he said gave officials pause.

At that time, he said commissioners wanted staff to adopt building codes in Johnson City that were similar to those in Washington County or other local municipalities.

“In that kind of scenario ... you wouldn’t have to learn a whole new set of rules to do business in Johnson City,” Wise said.

In October 2019, Wise wrote in an email to city leaders that builders have long found the city to be difficult to deal with, adding that staff should be encouraged to help applicants navigate these standards so projects can more forward more efficiently.

A few months later, the city announced it was reorganizing its development services department to improve customer service and streamline the development process.

Hicks said it’s good to the see Johnson City and Washington County working to implement many of the same codes.

“This should hopefully be a start of something that the whole area will take notice of and blend in with Johnson City and Washington County,” he said.